With the U.S.-led attack on Iraq and Iraqi outposts in conquered Kuwait, much of the Free World has embarked on a historic test.
It is a test of some new military weapons and tactics plus an old strategic principle - the notion that the combatant that controls the skies has a much better chance of controlling the ground and seas, too.It is a test of international military manpower, including many Americans who were civilians only a few days ago and who have never before fired a shot in anger.
And it is a test of the ability of the allies, particularly the ones with democratic governments, to persevere and prevail in the face of the tendency for public support to erode as a war wears on.
Though President Bush's brief TV talk Wednesday night told the world little it didn't already know about the need for this grim test, his calm demeanor and measured tones should help steady the jittery and stiffen the irresolute.
So far, the first allied strikes seem to have been as devastating as they were swift and sudden. Even so, it is too soon to assume that eventual victory is assured - or to expect a quick or clean conclusion. In battling Iraq, the unique coalition of Western and Arab nations is battling a major military power. More firepower has been deployed in the Persian Gulf than was involved in much of World War II.
Likewise, it is much too soon to even start guessing at the ultimate impact of the fighting.
For America's part, it had better not expect to win much popularity throughout the world even though this multinational effort is a war not of conquest but of liberation.
Maybe the most that can be expected is an increased measure not of agreement or amity but of respect. Certainly, through Bush's leadership, Washington has demonstrated that when it feels compelled to issue warnings, it is folly to treat them as empty rhetoric.
But let's hope and work for much more than that. The live TV and radio broadcasts of the attack from Western correspondents in Baghdad have given outsiders a fresh taste of the terror and confusion that is war. Then there's the grim impact of the fighting on the Persian Gulf itself. Let's hope that the resulting shock gives new impetus to a preference for efforts to settle serious international agreements by diplomacy rather than by force.
Despite the outbreak of hostilities, this is still a time for prayer. Prayer for expeditious victory with a minimum of bloodshed on all sides. Prayer for a lasting peace in the Persian Gulf based on justice to all there.
How expeditiously these goals may be achieved depends in part on how much some people can change their thinking. Despite repeated attempts to portray it as such, this is not Bush's war. It is not even the United Nations' war. Rather, it is Saddam Hussein's war. He started it by overrunning his peaceful neighbors in Kuwait. He can still end it by leaving.