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War critics have place in victory parade

Listen up, you quagmirers who opposed the Persian Gulf war, and now deride the costly parades in Washington and New York as a macho-militaristic "wargasm"; Pay attention, Democrats who followed Sam Nunn and Disjointed Chiefs of Staff over the cliff to silly-sanctionland, and now fret about political manipulators turning a national victory into a political winner;

And take heed, right-wing global cops of yesteryear, who tried to ignite a prairie fire of isolationism, and now pale at the prospect of flower-festooned American tanks rolling up our avenues and snatching the mantle of superpatriotism;

The message to all: you can relax. The celebration is not over your defeat. The flag-waving and the lumpy throats are not about the glories of militarism or the wisdom of the White House or the satisfactions of intervention.

Even so, you say, these parades are expressions of overweening pride in our ability to pulverize a second-rate power.

Won't all the organized cheering hide our failure to finish off Saddam Hussein or to save the brave Kurds and Shiites who answered our call to oust him?

Not all pride overweens. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, we slogged through the Slough of Self-Doubt. We lost a war to Vietnam and lost a president to Watergate and lost faith in our know-how when the choppers collided at Desert One.

Then the tide turned. The Soviet Union was forced to expose its internal decay. The world was faced with a different, regional threat _ an aggressive dictator reaching for a nuclear equalizer _ and the United States clobbered him.

Now we feel better about ourselves and our system. Is this unnatural? No. Is it dangerous? Only if we allow it to make us arrogant, or our leaders afflicted with hubris.

That is not happening. President Bush erred tragically at the verge of victory. He knows it; he was rightly and roundly criticized for putting cockamamie geopolitical calculation about Iraqi sovereignty ahead of his moral responsibility; he has been trying to patch it over by offering protection to refugees.

These are not the actions of a Caesar; on the contrary, they are the acts of a leader of a nation that will not stand for dishonor.

What, then, is the strange fervor coursing through our veins as we watch the bands go by and we wave at the troops on the tanks?

If pride is too troublesome a word, let us turn to a compound much more in vogue: self-esteem. The response to the parades is legitimate national self-esteem.

Consider what we have done that justifies that esteem. We recognized a threat before it was at our own throats; we debated what action to take and brought it to a vote in the Senate; and we entrusted the destruction of threat to our armed forces.

Had doves not demonstrated; had the loyal opposition, which preferred lesser sanctions, not opposed; had the media not provided prognostications that made us fearful of great costs; had the president not felt it necessary to give our national interest in self-protection the gloss of collective defense _ then the self-esteem that we feel today would not have been earned.

It ain't just what we did, it's the way that we did it. Arguing and wondering among ourselves, leading the single-superpowered world, surprised at our success and eager to recoup our failure _ that's the American character at its best.

And that is why pacifist, partisan or isolationist resentment at the celebration is misplaced.

Sure, some technojerks are falling in love with the latest implements of war, and some Republicans are trying to milk the good feeling.

Brush all that aside. Each of us has a piece of this welcome-home to constructive confidence.

Honor the heroes, respect the dissenters, experience the kinship, criticize some part of the policy, salute the flag. Anyone who has taken part in the action and the passion has a place in this parade.

New York Times News Service