WASHINGTON - This Fourth of July feels different. It is different.
It's not about the cookouts or the parades or the bunting or the fireworks or the stirring music or the national rush of warmth about this wonderful country. This year, it's about the war and sacrifice and suffering and death.
Those of us with family members serving with the armed forces overseas got a jolt this week. We heard from President Bush that this war will go on for a long time. A year ago, we didn't really understand that.
Mr. Bush said something to the stony-faced men and women of the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C., that he couldn't say in an election year - there is no end in sight. We have to stay in Iraq until the terrorists are routed and Iraq is, what? Like Kansas with mosques?
Nobody expected the President to provide a timetable for pulling out. Of course, that would be counterproductive. But we want to hear something new, something to pin our hopes on, something that resembles a plan.
Mr. Bush has now made an open-ended commitment to stay in Iraq as long as insurgents are killing and maiming. What responsibility does that put on the new government to make itself a viable political entity and make the hard slog to democracy?
In the meantime, he asked us to put flags out for the Fourth, and in my neighborhood, as is usual this time of year, there are flags in front of every house. He said to take care of military families. He said to write to the soldiers.
But it's mighty upsetting that in the same week the administration said we must keep paying hundreds of billions of dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House had to be dragged - kicking and screaming - into agreeing to spend a billion dollars long promised and needed for medical care for veterans.
It's extremely frustrating that while al-Qaeda did not operate in Iraq before the war, the military now confirms that terrorists are pouring into the country, eager to cause as much misery as possible, in their quest to bolster the insurgency and strike back at us.
It's infuriating that partly because Mr. Bush took us to war under false pretenses, we're no closer to getting more countries to help secure Iraq's borders to keep out terrorists and to train Iraqi soldiers. Nor are we closer to getting police to fight their own battles and provide their own security.
It's puzzling that 140,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq are supposed to be both rebuilding the country and keeping the insurgents at bay. Everybody but Mr. Bush knows that's not enough personnel. Certainly progress is being made, but not enough and not fast enough.
It's disheartening that Iran just elected as its leader a Neanderthal who wants women to be shrouded chattel and who wants to restart the nuclear program that Mr. Bush is so proud of stopping.
So here's a bad guy surrounded by Islamic extremists in a country next to Iraq who vows to get weapons of mass destruction. How will Mr. Bush deal with that? He hasn't said.
Iraq is not Vietnam redux. But neither is it Grenada, the little country that President Ronald Reagan invaded in 1983 ostensibly to keep communism from spreading after pro-Cuba guerrillas killed its prime minister. In Iraq, not only have more than 1,730 Americans died, but thousands have also received life-altering injuries.
People want to hear Mr. Bush explain how the war in Iraq and more American deaths are accomplishing what Mr. Bush insists they are. He said, "We are removing a source of violence and instability and laying the foundation of peace for our children and our grandchildren."
Mr. Bush said, "The terrorists know that the outcome (in Iraq) will leave them emboldened or defeated." Will they just give up if they can be driven out of Iraq?
By Aug. 15, the Iraqis are to have drafted a constitution (we have a pretty good one they could plagiarize) and then the Iraqi people are to vote on it. And then the country is to have a real election, with Kurds and Shiites and Sunnis voting and running for office.
If that doesn't happen, America must start thinking of withdrawing from Iraq.
Let's hope July 4, 2006, is a far happier occasion.