NEW YORK -- The words are almost always the same: "threat" ... "atrocities" ... "secret intelligence" ... "mission" ... "preventive" ... "fog" ... "brave" ... "terrorists" ... "Support our troops" ... "Stay the course" ... "waste"... "treason" ... "timetable" ... "withdraw" ... "tragedy."
It usually takes about nine years to say them all. Americans said them about Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. The Soviets said them about Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988. Judging by that recent history, we will be in Iraq for six or even more years. It will be a "tragedy" when we leave in 2012.
As we count our dead -- we lost more than 55,000 men and women in Vietnam, and the Soviets lost about 15,000 in Afghanistan -- the land we fought over will return to what it had been and may always be. The Vietnamese have been in the steamy heat of Vietnam for as long as history has been written. The same is true of the people in the hard mountains and valleys of Afghanistan and in the sands of Iraq. They are there forever. The occupiers go home one day; we come and we go.
It does take a while, a generation or so, for the natives to work their numbers up to where they were. The 135,000 invading Soviets killed more than a million Afghans, more than 9 percent of the 1979 population. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died in their nine years of cohabitation with the 550,000 Americans sent to save them. Thankfully, the numbers in Iraq will certainly be lower. Even now it is hard to keep track -- and our government does not count collateral deaths -- because the time differences make it hard to remember whether the 53 announced on television just now includes the 32 I just saw in the papers.
Whatever the body count in Iraq, it seems to have taken us about 2 1/2 years to move into "timetable" territory. Both Democrats, the very loyal opposition, and Republicans, the lusty flag-wavers, have begun to use that "T" word. At least two Republican congressmen, Walter Jones of North Carolina and Ron Paul of Texas, have joined a couple of dozen House Democrats in asking the White House and Defense Department whether they have thought about how and when we might get out of Iraq. No answer yet.
On the Senate side last week, Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded that a withdrawal timetable be announced in February if the famously elected Iraqi Parliament does not meet its self-imposed deadline for agreeing on a constitution. "The United States needs to state to Iraq and the world," he said, "that we will review our position with all options open, including, but not limited to, setting a timetable for withdrawal."
So, we are beginning to hear calls for the end-game in Iraq. But recent history tells us it will be a long game. Long after our leaders understand that we are going to get out of there with little to show for bloody effort, they will continue to deny reality on the ground because of political reality back home in the capital city.
Thomas Mann, the eminent presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, put it this way last week in an interview with The Hill, the journal on the desks of all members of Congress:
"Republicans have to defend a war that was very badly planned and is costing much more in blood and treasure than the public was led to believe. Democrats struggle to define and agree on alternative policy that doesn't simply write off the sacrifices already made by our armed forces and accept defeat."
In other words, the die has been cast; we have crossed both the Tigris and the Euphrates. But if history is our guide, it will take six more years to declare peace with honor, one more time. As if most of us, Iraqis aside, did not already know that this war is over. We tried the impossible again, with the usual result -- and it will take time to craft a noble rationale for what we have done to ourselves.
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