Now that the war appears to have entered its "endgame" -- a term perfectly designed for overusage in the media -- it will become painfully clear how tricky it is to make peace. Peace is a sloppy thing. If the United States and its allies aren't careful, they could win a smashing military victory -- it is virtually a slaughter at this point -- and come away without any of the political spoils. That's not a quirk; war is just that way.

"This is a very intractable problem, how this war ends," said retired Col. William J. Taylor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The experts are not necessarily pessimistic. There has been too much good news from the Persian Gulf for that. But the Washington war-watchers are concerned, a bit puzzled. "Countries do a lot of planning for getting into war, and compared to that do almost no planning at all about how to end it," said Fred Ikle, a former undersecretary of defense and author of "Every War Must End," a study of conflict termination.

"Right this minute, I'd say, hell, we haven't the slightest idea, we should have started earlier," Taylor said of the postwar planning. "This war will be the most difficult to end and settle in the interests of international security of any war in my lifetime, and that includes World War II on. This one is going to make Vietnam pale in significance."

History warns that victories in big wars come slowly. And even then, victories are never final.

For Germans in World War II, says William Kaufman, a historian and Pentagon consultant, "it wasn't until Hitler committed suicide that they were able to accept the prospect of unconditional surrender." The United States was similarly reluctant to end its own disastrous intervention in Southeast Asia. "We dragged out Vietnam. Although it was clear by the late '60s that we weren't going to be able to continue a major operation there, it took five years nearly for us to extricate ourselves." Kaufman doubts that yesterday's peace gestures will stop the war. "I would be somewhat astonished if this turned rapidly toward a solution, or an end to the fighting."

The impermanence of victory was illustrated in terrible fashion by World War I. By the summer of 1918 it was obvious that the Germans had lost the war, but, as was the pattern in every war of this century, they continued to fight, using increasingly desperate measures including a final and futile offensive against the British line. The Allies, invigorated by the American expeditionary force, managed to drive back the Germans. Amid political revolt in Berlin, the Kaiser fled to Holland, an armistice was signed and many months of peace negotiations began. The fury that had built up over years of war drove the allies to demand severe reparations from Germany and dismemberment of the military.

Partly because of those terms, the Weimar Republic suffered runaway inflation and economic collapse. That set the stage for the rise of Hitler. His fanatic brand of nationalism proved appealing to an embittered population. Britain and France were too weak to enforce the terms of Versailles, and Hitler simply renounced the treaty. Historians now partially blame the harshness and impracticality of the peace treaty of 1919 for the coming of the second world war, and even for the Cold War that followed -- which means that the "victory" of Nov. 11, 1918, laid the foundations for 70 years of terror, mayhem and genocide.

Now the United States and its allies must figure out what to do with the aggressive little nation of Iraq and its megalomaniacal leader. No one expects American tanks to roll through downtown Baghdad as though it were Berlin in 1945. There will be an armistice at some point. The question is whether Iraq will be accepted as a negotiating partner -- in which case the terms of peace must be satisfactory to whoever is running the Iraqi government -- or will be forced to accept terms imposed unilaterally by the military victors.

Michael Howard, an eminent military historian at Yale, says, "If one is going to make a harsh peace with Iraq, if we're going to run them into the ground, we have to make sure that there's somebody there" -- an enforcer -- "who can make sure they don't get up."

The way the Germans did.

But obviously none of this is simple, no solution is neat and tidy. Things lose their clarity in the fog of peace. A victor who is too brutal will earn no respect. A victory too weak could let the triumph slip away. Americans surely want more than a mere military victory -- they would like to be the heroes of this story, not only in their own minds but in the minds and hearts of people worldwide. That's a level of victory that looks, for now, a long way off.