One hundred minutes after The Deadline, the Second Persian Gulf War began. For American news crews in Baghdad, it arrived in a staccato burst of anti-aircraft guns firing into the skies over Baghdad. Thirty minutes later, at 10:15 EST, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office, saying that the war for the liberation of Iraq had begun. His speech was short and understated. (The cruise missiles and bunker-busters exploding in Iraq were statement enough.)
Within three hours, Saddam Hussein was shown on Iraqi TV delivering the predictable rant. While he was fulminating against “Junior Bush,” news agencies back in the U.S. reported that our president had gone to bed, and Secretary of State Colin Powell too.
The world was no doubt surprised by the way the war began — surprised by both the timing and relative restraint of the first volley. There had been a huge buildup. The public kept hearing that the war would break forth in sudden, overwhelming violence — “shock and awe.” Actually it began with operations “to prep the battlefield” and a limited “decapitation strike against the head of the snake.”
Cameras will soon enough capture the full fury of the Second Persian Gulf War. The Pentagon continues to insist that when the air campaign really gets under way, we will all know it. In the meantime, many Americans will do what Americans always do when our nation is at war. They will pray. As President Bush said Wednesday night, “I know that the families of our military are praying that all those who serve will return safely and soon. Millions of Americans are praying with you for the safety of your loved ones and for the protection of the innocent.”
Twelve years ago, another commander-in-chief expressed a similar sentiment at the start of the First Persian Gulf War. President George H. W. Bush said on nationwide television:
“Tonight, as our forces fight, they and their families are in our prayers. May God bless each and every one of them, and the coalition forces at our side in the Gulf, and may He continue to bless our nation, the United States of America.”
Thus has it ever been. During crises, American leaders have either led the nation in prayer or encouraged fellow citizens to pray.
One of the most striking prayers a commander-in-chief ever uttered before the American public occurred during the Second World War. Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation at the start of that war’s greatest military offensive. In the first hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944, FDR went on radio and offered words that speak to our present challenge:
In this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor … to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness to their faith.
They will need Thy blessings…. They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violence of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and for tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas — whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice….
Thy will be done, Almighty God.
— Gleaves Whitney is editing a book on the wartime speeches of American presidents, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield later this year.