AS American soldiers return home from the Persian Gulf, assessments will be made of the effect of the Gulf war on everything from US elections and the economy to how the war will shape the nation's collective identity. The current climate mingles relief and amazement that the coalition casualties were so light, given the decisive Gulf victory. There's also a pride in having successfully carried out a mission.
That pride will have to make room for some humility and sober reflection. The story in the Gulf is not yet over. The region is still "hot." And common humanity demands that exultation should be tempered by recent estimates of Iraqi dead - between 100,000 and 200,000. Those numbers indicate a tremendous amount of suffering by a people with whom, as President Bush has said, America has no quarrel.
Still, the mood is upbeat. At a time when the US has been said to lack resolve, it may be important to know that the fight is not out of the American people.
In line with this, some immediate lessons can be drawn from the war. The late Barbara Tuchman, after the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, noted a deteriorating sense of quality and a lack of precision in American workmanship, and by implication in the American mind. Others noted such problems too.
Yet forces in the Gulf showed competence and capability. More than 500,000 men and women are coming home who have had the experience of a successful mission. The forces under General Schwarzkopf showed discipline, precision, alertness, bravery, unity, care for others - an ability to achieve the task at hand, and carry out orders in the service of a larger purpose. Such qualities and spirit are needed.
As Mr. Bush told the nation last week: "The America we saw in the desert was first class. We saw the excellence embodied in the Patriot missile and the patriots who made it work."
But caution is in order. The Gulf war shouldn't become a misguided US metaphor for success. Much of the coalition clout in the Gulf came from an overwhelming superiority in machinery - high-tech weapons. The military itself operates much like a machine.
Individuals and societies aren't machines, however, nor can the more profound issues of the human condition be solved by technology. Problems in education, between neighbors, at home, resist a military approach. In sterner terms, the ability to drop bombs on a third-world country for five weeks does not immediately translate into raising intelligent children or becoming a people of moral and spiritual depth.
The war against Saddam Hussein was a success, not a panacea.