"We are redefining war on our terms." So declared an exuberant George W. Bush just two years ago as the U.S. military completed its stunning demolition of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The president seemingly had good reason to boast. In its initial stages, Operation Iraqi Freedom surpassed all expectations, affirming the verdict first rendered more than a decade before by Operation Desert Storm: The United States, the greatest power the world had ever seen, had apparently mastered the art of war. America's armed forces appeared invincible.
Two years later war is no longer doing the president's bidding. In recent weeks, much of the news from the Middle East has been about the movements for democracy and free elections in Iraq and neighboring countries. But the claims that "freedom is on the march" cannot conceal this fact: In Iraq, protracted conflict is draining the lifeblood from America's armed services.
Evidence that U.S. forces are badly overstretched has become incontrovertible. Recruits for the all-volunteer force are drying up. Only the quasi-permanent mobilization of tens of thousands of part-time soldiers allows the Army to meet its day-to-day requirements -- an arrangement that the chief of Army reserves has declared unsustainable. Meanwhile, revelations of GI misconduct accumulate, a worrisome sign of eroding discipline. Worst of all, the casualty list grows ever longer. To the discerning observer, stress fractures in the imposing edifice of American military supremacy have begun to appear.
How are we to account for this surprising turn of events? Among some observers, incompetence in the Pentagon's upper echelons has found favor as the preferred explanation. But blaming Donald Rumsfeld for our predicament in Iraq makes as much sense as blaming Paris Hilton for the trashiness of American pop culture: It's an exercise in scapegoating that lets too many others -- including the American people -- off the hook.
The conflict in Iraq derives from a specific estimate of U.S. military capabilities, fostered by hawks such as Rumsfeld but casually endorsed by far too many Americans. According to that estimate, a combination of matchless technology and professionalism enabled the United States in the heady aftermath of the Cold War to devise a radically new way of war. Armed force in American hands had become both effective and economical -- not a bludgeon, as in days of old, but a scalpel. So, at least, we convinced ourselves.
In Iraq, this assessment and the expectations to which it gave rise have been found wanting. Rather than demonstrating a novel approach to war, combat there has become distressingly familiar.
Whereas technology was supposed to render the battlefield transparent, the "fog of war" settled over Iraq like a suffocating blanket. Never have U.S. forces fought in such ignorance of the enemy's purpose, strength, leadership and order of battle. George Armstrong Custer knew more about the warriors he faced in 1876 than U.S. commanders today know about their adversaries.
Whereas precision weapons were supposedly making error, waste and collateral damage a thing of the past, the fight to control Iraqi cities has given the past a new life. Comparisons between the "liberation" of Fallujah and the Marines' assault on Hue in 1968 are only too apt. In both cases, victory was gained the old-fashioned way: through brute force.
Toppling Saddam Hussein opened a Pandora's box of unanticipated complications. Whether it was attacks on oil pipelines or insurgents infiltrating into the new Iraqi security forces, events time and again caught U.S. officials flat-footed. Even success proves transitory, with yesterday's apparent accomplishment becoming unglued today.
To which anyone with even a passing knowledge of history would reply: of course. This is what war has always been -- grueling, filthy, confusing, replete with accidents and miscues that victimize the innocent, giving rise to unforeseen consequences and loose ends. What qualifies as truly perplexing is not that the conflict in Iraq has reaffirmed this reality but that so many Americans, seduced by claims that this nation could bend war to our purposes, indulged in the fantasy that it would be otherwise.
Well, now we know better. But let this be said: If our experience in Iraq demolishes once and for all the martial illusions to which the current generation of Americans has proven susceptible, then the United States may yet derive some benefit from this costly misadventure.
The writer is a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."