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The State of the world

Special Report | An in-depth look at rumors of war and problems of peace, new warfighting tactics and the age-old issue of persecution, the Great Commission, and prosperity and progress

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

For mothers all questions about the state of the world ultimately boil down to these two: When will the war begin? Will my son have to go? American mothers of a generation or two may be forgiven for letting those sleeping dogs lie. With the exception of a 41-day Gulf War and peacekeeping missions to Bosnia, the nearest most come to international conflict is deciding on Thai or Chinese carryout. We gave our boys plastic building sets instead of army men, and water-soakers instead of toy guns. We taught them to play Risk if they wanted a taste of combat.

Most Americans were wondering what we needed the rest of the world for, anyway. We have the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, London Bridge in Arizona, Olive Gardens on every corner. If the NBA wants to buy Yao Ming, it's automatic that he won't be Shanghai's hometown wonder for long.

Our idyll ended last September in the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. Reports on reinstating the draft circulate. Anxiety goes beyond what foreign soil may be calling our sons' names. Combat zones in this new warscape can be airports or post offices. Weapons erupt from the utensil drawer or the heel of a shoe. When it comes to battling terrorism, we are all a soldier's mother now.

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The United States went to war against those who knifed our financial and military might that awful autumn day. The grim news is they are likely to strike again. So a summer season of travel begins with the world at an eerie tilt.

U.S. Special Forces are at this moment scaling ancient mountains nine time zones away from Manhattan. Terrorists and clergy holed up together in Bethlehem Square, where the modern clock began ticking 2,000 years ago, threaten to suck the whole Middle East, and us with them, into a vortex of conflict. Having survived Cold War standoff, the world could go nuclear over a remote highland border in Kashmir. U.S. airpower in the 21st century stands unrivaled, yet the Pentagon contemplates a ground war against Iraq requiring 250,000 foot soldiers.

With so much mischief loose in the world, it's the right time to remember why America goes to war. Ronald Reagan liked to say that even complex battles should be driven by a simple purpose: "The great civilized ideas, individual liberty, representative government and the rule of law under God.

Those aren't abstract virtues, Mr. Reagan said, but "[they] have done so much to ease the plight of man and the hardships of our imperfect world."

Liberals regarded Mr. Reagan as a warmongering president, but he once said he believed "war is probably man's greatest stupidity and I think peace is the dream that lives in the heart of everyone."

Which is why, in time of war, sons of peace shine especially bright. I've met two in travels since Sept. 11: Ronald Gold, an ophthalmologist who lives in Palestine, Texas; and Mark Napier, a London banker. Dr. Gold is a volunteer in the war on terrorism; Mr. Napier was drafted.

Earlier this spring Dr. Gold returned from a peacetime tour of duty in northern Iraq. In four days he and a team of private volunteer health workers performed more than 90 cataract-removal procedures. He works in a region where Iraqis oppose the Saddam Hussein regime, so they live under both UN embargo and Baghdad's threats. Under those circumstances, preventable blindness is hard to prevent without outside help. Dr. Gold estimates he has performed a total of 500 eye surgeries in three separate trips to the region-including repairing eye damage from landmine explosions.

On his first trip in 1995, he followed U.S. Marines sent in to rout Iraqi troops who tried to wipe out the opposition. Every window in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk was blown out. Hospitals were running on diesel generators, and health workers did manual resuscitation when blackouts caused breathing machines to fail. Twice he has been turned back at the border, but this is his idea of a profitable vacation, and so he is planning to go back soon.

Mr. Napier, an Anglican evangelical, traveled to the Middle East earlier this year to hear Muslims and Christians talk about terrorism and East-West relations. He wanted to see if there was anything Western Christians and Eastern Muslims had to say to each other after the events of Sept. 11. His interest in the subject began that Tuesday morning, he said, because his brother, an insurance broker, was killed in the World Trade Center. Israeli forces had Yasser Arafat under house arrest in the West Bank at the time of the symposiums he attended, and many of the Middle East religious leaders were ready to defend terrorism as a justified response to U.S. support for Israel.

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