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Published: Wednesday, 11/29/2006

The long war

A GRIM milestone in the history of American wars passed over the weekend, one we ignore at our peril. As of Sunday, the United States had been waging war in Iraq for a longer period - three years and roughly nine months - than its direct involvement in World War II.

This is not to equate the scope of what has transpired in Iraq with the conflict of 1941 to 1945, one fought in a global arena in which 406,000 Americans died, or with any of this nation's 10 other major wars since the founding of the republic.

In the view of the outcome of the elections recently concluded, the milestone does, however, signify the unwillingness of the American people to expend blood and treasure on a fruitless military venture abroad.

As John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist, put it, the public did "a rough cost-benefit analysis. They say, 'What's it worth to us and how much is it costing us?' So that, for example when more than 2,000 Americans had died in Iraq, support lowered. It took 20,000 deaths in Vietnam to lower support for that war to the same level."

In terms of length, Iraq is eclipsed - so far - by Vietnam (eight years, five months); the Revolutionary War (six years, nine months); Afghanistan (five years, one month); the Civil War (four years), and World War II (three years, eight months).

Looked at in military lives lost, the nearly 3,000 Iraq war deaths hardly compare with past conflicts, not only World War II but World War I (116,000), Vietnam (58,000), and Korea (37,000). All these are dwarfed, of course, by the Civil War, in which 620,000 died on both sides.

It would be wrong to conclude that the American people have lost their stomach for war they believe is in the national interest, but they do recognize a losing proposition when one is foisted on them, as Iraq surely has been.

Unfortunately, the people who pushed the nation into war - President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and a compliant Republican majority in Congress - have persisted long past the point where there are any good alternatives in getting out.

Instead of subduing Iraq, the administration has let the conflict degenerate into a civil war with the American military in the middle. Any plan the Baker Commission may come up with to extricate the U.S. will almost certainly involve negotiating from a position of weakness.

Whatever takes place in the next two years, the fatal consequence of hubris in pursuing democracy in Iraq against well-considered military and political advice may well be the hallmark of President Bush's legacy to the nation.

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