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U.S. must now relearn how to fight and win

By ROBERT C.J. PARRY, Guest Columnist
Daily News

WHILE Congress, the president and the media play politics with questions of victory in Iraq, as a combat veteran and student of history, I think we should consider a far more fundamental question: Can America ever win another war?

What might seem silly on its face is magnified to full significance in the looking glass of history. Should we retreat from the battlefield in Iraq - which is what anything short of legitimate victory would be - America will have established a 60-year record of failing to prevail against strategically significant enemies.

In 1951, we plunged into Korea to stop the spread of communism. After three years, we lost interest and entered a truce that today is strained in ominous atomic shadows.

A decade later, we flowed into Vietnam for the same cause, only to withdraw unbeaten but unvictorious after a decade of nastiness. Millions of innocents perished in the ensuring carnage.

Our military, broken in spirit, rebounded with vigor, and demonstrated renewed prowess against Saddam Hussein's conscripts in the first Persian Gulf War. However, decisive victory was delayed a dozen years - and ultimately, perhaps, forever.

Given that Congress seems determined to give up in the face of our fourth persistent enemy in as many fights, it is not unreasonable to ask: Are modern, pampered Americans capable of winning real wars?

Modest interim successes - like Grenada and Panama - have been balanced by frustration in Kosovo (where our troops remain), Beirut and Somalia. Each conflict was the same. Despite superior equipment, tactics and supplies, we simply lacked the emotional fortitude to endure battle. War is a nasty business.

During my year in Baghdad, whenever we faced unpleasantness - such as when I had four friends killed in action in two weeks - I gave my subordinates (and myself) some simple perspective: "At least it ain't the winter of '44."

The American Army spent December 1944 resisting a surprise German thrust into its lines, the Battle of the Bulge. Hundreds of thousands of GIs - more than the total now in Iraq - spent weeks of subzero nights in a Belgian forest, sleeping in foxholes dug in the snow. Cut off from supplies, many lacked coats or even socks.

But given that Nazis lay just yards away, most were satisfied with cold, watery soup as long as they got bullets for their rifles. Those soldiers of our "greatest generation" held on tenaciously, despite suffering 19,000 deaths. There was no "phased withdrawal," and they went on to save millions in concentration camps, despite enduring much worse environmental and battlefield conditions than Iraq presents.

What changed in the proceeding half-century?

Certainly not soldiers' character. The military's dissatisfaction with the war reflects not desire to retreat, but rather frustration with the "rules of engagement" and politically dictated resourcing that restrict them from taking the fight to the enemy.

What has changed is America's stomach for the fight. This is reflected in months of resistance to the obvious need for a greater tactical commitment. It is displayed in congressional games that ultimately focus on surrender for domestic political advantage, regardless of the cost.

But, most significantly, it is shown in voters who cannot compare Baghdad 2007 with Bastogne 1944 (unless they watched "Band of Brothers"), and who would rather flip over to "American Idol," anyway. It is citizens who find three deaths per day repulsive, while ignorant that their freedom was won in battles with casualty reports rounded to the nearest thousand.

A scholastic re-emphasis of history might help in the long run. But ultimately, it will require a re-toughening of the calluses our ancestors developed building our nation.

For much as we seem to already have forgotten the shock and pain of 9-11, we have equally forgotten that there once was no America, and that its birth came at a price.

Our enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and here at home are tenacious, ruthless and committed. If we don't relearn how to fight and win, we might soon be reminded.

Robert C. J. Parry is a National Guard veteran of Iraq. The thoughts expressed are his own. Write to him by e-mail at
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