It's a big, fast war. Ten thousand sorties in a week sets a new standard. Events change so rapidly that breaking news is getting reported and written and then yanked from the paper before press time because new news has made it irrelevant. And yet "War Drags On" is the headline Defense Secretary Richard Cheney says he saw in a newspaper Tuesday morning.
USA Today reported as early as Monday that people were getting burned out on the war coverage and wanted a respite. Most people think the war will last no more than a few months.
We are an impatient people. Haste is our way. Fast is our style. We have the personality of a little kid in the back seat on a long trip. We want to be there. Now.
"Americans are a little spoiled. A short attention span. They like a good John Wayne punch in the jaw that brings things to an end after two hours," says Jon Guttman, senior editor of Military History magazine.
A peek into the reference books reveals a disturbing trend among wars: They take a long time. This is not true in every single case -- there was the Six Day War, and such micro-wars as the Grenada invasion and the Panama thing -- but these are actions on a different scale than the conflict underway in the Persian Gulf. The big wars are grindingly slow. They are measured in years, not months or weeks. War, historically, demands patience.
The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta lasted 27 years. Alexander the Great spent a full decade conquering his part of the world. The Syrian Wars between Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire erupted five times in the space of 81 years. The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage were a tripleheader, the first lasting 23 years, the second 17 and the third expedited in a mere three. Attila the Hun spent 12 years sacking the Roman Empire.
The longest war in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, was the Hundred Years' War between France and England in the 14th and 15th centuries. The name is a bit of an understatement. The war actually lasted about 115 years. Bloodier still, if brief by comparison, was the Thirty Years' War, which involved all sorts of folks, including Denmark, Sweden, France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg dynasty.
World War I was supposed to be a quickie. Instead, the two sides became bogged down in trench warfare that lasted four years, with progress measured in yards, casualties measured in the millions.
"They all started as short wars" is the ominous word from Jim Blackwell, analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a pessimist about this war. The public, he says, has no idea how big it is.
"The war is already bigger than Normandy," he says, referring to D-Day in World War II. "I don't think the country has recognized that, but it's dawning on us quickly. When it's really going to hit us between the eyeballs is when the ground war starts and the casualties start rolling in. Before this is all over we may well call this World War III."
One war that has parallels to the current conflict is the War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War or the Lopez War. This last denotes Francisco Solano Lopez, dictator of Paraguay, a corpulent man with blackened teeth who dreamed of establishing a great South American empire. He executed and imprisoned any detractors within his country. His army, 100,000 strong, adored him, and each soldier felt he was a match for eight of the enemy. The Paraguayans invaded Brazil in 1864, and a year later declared war on Argentina as well. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay formed an alliance, drove Paraguayan troops out of Brazil and gradually wore down the Lopez forces in a long war of attrition. Through it all, Lopez summarily executed any officers who retreated. Many of his "soldiers" in the final days were boys wearing false beards. The dictator finally holed up in the mountains and waited for the final battle. When it came it lasted only 15 minutes. Lopez was lanced in the side, but still refused to surrender, crying, "I die with my country" just before he was shot to death.
"He lost nearly every battle, but refused to give in," says Kenneth Czech, a contributing editor to Military History. "His people, the Paraguayan Indians for the most part, followed him, even to the point of old men and children... . The only end to Paraguay's warlike state was to kill Lopez."
Fanatics will endure war despite unimaginable costs to themselves and their nation. The prewar population of Paraguay was 525,000. After the conflict it was only 221,000, and of those, only 29,000 were adult males.
"Will Saddam Hussein have to be eliminated to bring to an end hostilities in Iraq?" Czech asks. He leaves that for others to decide.