It's a single glass case in an 18,200-square-foot exhibition, but it's likely to draw more flak than its size would suggest.

You'll find it near the end of "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War," the expensive new military history show set to open Thursday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It's just past a display of a twisted structural column from the World Trade Center and before the exhibition's concluding display on Medal of Honor winners. Inside the case will be the artifacts that museum curators have chosen to represent the war in Iraq -- among them the uniform of a U.S. Army ranger killed by a roadside bomb, a set of the "Most Wanted" cards handed out to American troops to help them identify key fugitives from Saddam Hussein's regime and a piece of decorated glass from one of Hussein's palaces.

The Iraq display has already generated internal dissent.

"Treatment of current events without benefit of historical distance and analysis is a risky enterprise," wrote Katherine Ott, chair of the NMAH branch of the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars, in a July memo to museum management expressing some of her colleagues' concerns. In particular, Ott wrote, the choice to include the operations in Iraq under the "Price of Freedom" title "presents a partisan view of the current war and is counter to our neutral public mission."

NMAH Director Brent Glass disagrees.

"It's important for a history museum to show the connection between the present and the past," Glass says. To exclude a major conflict "where Americans are losing their lives" would be wrong.

Stay tuned. The long-running firefight over history on the Mall may be flaring up again.

It has been a contentious decade for history at the Smithsonian. One major battleground has been whether the nation's most important history museums could raise difficult questions about such charged events as the American decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, as the National Air and Space Museum was prevented from doing in its exhibition on the Enola Gay. Another has been the seemingly unrelated issue of how much control private donors should exercise over these public museums.

The two battlegrounds converge in "The Price of Freedom."

When real estate developer Kenneth E. Behring signed a gift agreement in the summer of 2000 promising $80 million to the Smithsonian, he already had a military show in mind. The agreement required NMAH to construct a permanent exhibition "highlighting the history and contributions of the American people (but focusing primarily on the military's role) in preserving and protecting freedom and democracy."

Behring's role in the remaking of NMAH would soon be overshadowed in the public mind by that of local businesswoman Catherine B. Reynolds, whose gift agreement mandated the construction of a hall of achievement devoted to "life stories of eminent Americans." The Reynolds exhibition generated furious opposition inside and outside the Smithsonian, and she eventually withdrew her gift, leaving Behring as the major donor influencing the museum.

Accounts vary as to just how influential he has been.

"Without his gift we wouldn't be doing this exhibit," Glass says, but "that's been the single biggest influence that he has had." David Allison, the veteran NMAH curator who took over as project director for "The Price of Freedom" in the spring of 2003, emphasizes that although he has briefed Behring on the show's progress, he has never met privately with the donor (that's Glass's job, he says) or sent him script drafts for review.

Allison's predecessor, Robin Reed -- who left his temporary job with NMAH to accept a permanent position at Colonial Williamsburg -- had a different view of Behring's role.

"The Castle watched us pretty closely," Reed says, referring to the Smithsonian's central administration and in particular to Sheila Burke, deputy secretary and chief operating officer, because "they had a donor sensitivity issue." In Reed's mind, there was no doubt who was in charge. "Sheila Burke and Ken Behring were my bosses," he says.

Burke says she was certainly Reed's boss, just as she's the boss of thousands of other Smithsonian employees -- but "I don't think under any circumstances was Ken ever positioned that way." The Smithsonian never permits donors to "dictate how we do what we do," she says.

Behring's office said he was traveling and unavailable for comment. In a 2001 interview with The Washington Post, he said if he couldn't have a say in what the museum did, "then I do not want to be part of it." He said his goal in funding "The Price of Freedom" was to create an exhibition emphasizing Americans' wartime sacrifice, one "that shows the young people how many people have given the ultimate price."

It's not as though American History's curators wouldn't have faced challenges even without questions of politics and donor influence. To tell the story of America's wars in a single exhibition, especially with only three years to plan and construct it -- a very short time in the museum world -- is no small feat.

Understanding this, as well as the sensitivity of the project, the museum put together a committee of historians who, it hoped, could offer useful insights and help prevent serious errors. Conversations with a number of these historians offer a window on NMAH decision-making. All those interviewed emphasized that they have not seen the finished exhibition or even a completed script. In some cases, for that reason, they asked not to be quoted by name.

The "Price of Freedom" rubric, they say, was presented to them as a given.

"That title may have come from the donor," says Richard Kohn, a former chief historian of the U.S. Air Force now teaching at the University of North Carolina. Kohn thinks Behring may have "influenced the overall approach" of the exhibition. But he calls NMAH's Glass and Allison "first-rate historians" and says that during his time as adviser, he saw no signs of specific tampering by the donor.

Northwestern's Michael Sherry says the "Price of Freedom" framework bothered him because it implies that freedom has always been the objective of American wars and that their "price" has been paid exclusively by Americans. As a counterexample, Sherry offers the insurrection that broke out after the United States took the Philippines from Spain in 1898. The price of suppressing this was also paid, he says, by "a hell of a lot of Filipinos."

"Wars are more complex than simply fights for freedom," says Andrew Cayton of Miami University. Seeing the title as unchangeable, however, Cayton says he concentrated on making sure the exhibition would include more than "the usual narrative" of the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. He pushed NMAH to expand its coverage of "the wars we don't like to talk about" -- among them the Mexican War, the Spanish American War and the wars against American Indians -- which were "about acquisition of territory and subjugation of other people."

Some criticism from the advisory committee was harsh. One member called a draft script he saw last year "unreflective across the board" and said it would make "a great recruiting exhibit." More than one historian raised concerns about the paucity of analysis about why various wars were fought, or about whether the decision to fight had been a wise one. None of them knows to what extent their criticisms have been heeded, though most say NMAH staffers have been responsive.

Glass and Allison say: Wait and see what we've done.

One thing Allison brought to the exhibition as project director, he says, was an awareness "that our audience is in many ways historically illiterate." Many people "don't know that the western part of the United States was taken from Mexico during a war" and other such "fundamental factual things." A major concern for Allison's exhibition team, then, has been to get the basics down in a clean, chronological narrative.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small also pushed NMAH to narrow the exhibition's focus. He wanted, Glass and Allison say, no more than three major themes. The most important one they came up with, Allison says, "was that wars were defining episodes in American history." The second was that they have "social, economic, political, technological dimensions." The third was that they "demand great personal sacrifice, both on the battlefield and on the home front."

This last theme, in particular, fit nicely with another goal, which was to tell personal stories and give personal perspectives whenever possible. "The Price of Freedom" will include more than 40 "My View" panels -- often, though not always, giving arguments from opposing sides of a controversial issue. A number of interactive multimedia displays will also highlight first-person voices.

To say that wars are defining episodes, however, is by itself to say almost nothing. It is the historian's job to suggest why and in what ways this is true. And although a focus on individuals has obvious appeal, using their unfiltered voices to deal with historical divisions -- as advisory committee member Sherry points out -- can also be a way to finesse difficult questions.

"It strikes me as punting," he says.

Yet it's worth noting, in this context, that one individual view presented is that of a Japanese survivor of the atomic bombing. This is a perspective that the Air and Space Museum was not permitted to present.

What, then, about the difficult question of where an exhibition on American military history should end? What went into the decision to include Iraq?

Advisory committee member Cayton says he was convinced by the argument that museum visitors would expect to see something about the current war, especially people who had relatives and friends serving overseas.

NMAH Director Glass says the museum talked with teachers, among others, about this question. "Teachers said to us, 'Our students need to see something about current events as a gateway into history,' " he says.

Project director Allison notes that the museum had done a well-received show on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and it wanted to include some of that material in the military history show. Yet it made no sense to do that, he says, "without saying something about the follow-on."

Deciding where to conclude the exhibition, as many involved point out, was going to be problematic in any case. A narrative of American wars that ended with Vietnam would send one message; one that ended with the first Gulf War would send quite another. What's more, both messages would be altered -- unavoidably and unpredictably -- when viewed in the context of whatever was happening in the current war.

Still, when Allison and Glass talk about the choice NMAH finally made, it's hard not to recall the Congress of Scholars' concerns about the impossibility of getting historical distance -- and avoiding the appearance of partisanship -- when dealing with an ongoing war.

How, the two men are asked, did NMAH address the question of why the United States attacked Saddam Hussein's regime?

"I think we basically say that we did," Allison says. Then he remembers that the views of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and former presidential candidate Howard Dean are highlighted. Both Rice and Dean believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time, he says, but they drew opposite conclusions about whether the United States should go to war.

Does the exhibit deal with the fact that no such weapons have materialized?

"No," says Allison.

Glass elaborates.

"I think the end is really the fall of the regime," he says.

Kenneth E. Behring, right, with the Smithsonian's Lawrence Small in 2000. Behring has given the museum $80 million, some of it for this exhibition.Uniforms worn by George Washington and Colin Powell two centuries apart are in the show, which opens Thursday.