"I ordered first a substantial increase in the training and equipment of South Vietnamese forces. . . . The primary mission of our troops is to enable the South Vietnamese forces to assume the full responsibility for the security of South Vietnam."

President Richard M. Nixon, on his Vietnamization policy, Nov. 3, 1969.

"Eventually [Iraqi forces] must be the primary defenders of Iraqi security, as American and coalition forces are withdrawn. . . . At my direction, and with the support of Iraqi authorities, we are accelerating our program to help train Iraqis to defend their country."

President George W. Bush, U.S. Army War College speech, May 24, 2004.

As we observe this Memorial Day weekend celebration and the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, George Bush's pledge to prepare Iraqis to take over their country's security should not be overlooked. If ever a presidential declaration deserved close tracking and constant appraisal, especially by Congress, Bush's pledge to Iraqize that country's defense is it.

Richard Nixon said much the same thing about Vietnam during the first year of his presidency. 'Course, there's a world of difference between saying and doing. After the launching of Vietnamization, it took four years and an additional 15,000 Americans killed in action before U.S. troops were finally withdrawn from ground combat. And the troops came home only because Americans, war-weary and deeply divided, lost confidence in the White House and its Pentagon advisers, and demanded that Congress impose limitations on U.S. military action.

The burning question this weekend, as we honor those Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, is how long -- and at what additional cost in U.S. sons, daughters and treasure -- will it take before the Bush administration's ill-fated Iraq venture is mercifully brought to an end?

We learned a bloody and costly lesson 35 years ago by gambling that we could get a foreign country ready in short order to stand and fight on its own. Nixon, as did Lyndon Johnson, underestimated the motivation and fighting skill of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Or, conversely, both overrated the South Vietnamese force that they equipped, trained and sent into combat. Either way, we got it wrong and the NVA got what it wanted: South Vietnam.

To hear Bush tell it this week, the United States is going to march down that same road. He set a goal of creating an Iraqi army of 35,000 soldiers fully prepared to defend their country. That's on top of his order to train an Iraqi force of more than 200,000 police and security personnel. As with Nixon, Bush did not announce a timetable for his program. But his objective is clear: The rate of American withdrawal will be calibrated to the growth of Iraqi forces.

Again, how long?

It's not an idle question. In an appraisal that came in decidedly on the low side, Bush admitted to Monday's national television audience that "the early performance of Iraqi forces fell short." Fell short? "Some refused orders to engage the enemy," said the U.S. commander in chief. Mr. Bush was way too kind. Would that it were only fear on the battlefield.

What about those Iraqi police who cooperated with the insurgents? I'm referring to reports of Iraqis turning over their weapons and the buildings they were guarding. How about those Iraqis who turned their guns on us? Failures of that kind cannot be chalked up to lack of training or unit cohesion, as Bush suggested this week. Something else may be afoot.

Guns are as plentiful in Iraqi homes as sand in the desert. Yet, with a couple of notable exceptions cited in Bush's speech, Iraqis are not showing much stomach for taking on and dismantling the terrorist forces, illegal militias and Saddam Hussein loyalist elements that Bush brands as enemies. Could it be the other way around: that the Iraqi people see the Western occupation -- not Arab militias and guerrillas -- as standing between themselves and their future as a self-determining, Islamic nation? A tougher question still: Even if the Iraqis were capable of dealing with the insurgents by themselves, would they? Does the insurgency have their enmity or their quiet admiration?

By Memorial Day 2005, we may have our answer. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently told Congress that it may take a year to 18 months to get Iraqi security forces fully trained and equipped -- which is a far cry from Wolfowitz on Nov. 13, 2003, when he told regional U.S. media outlets in a series of interviews that "we are getting enormous support from the people who matter most, and that's the Iraqi people. We now have over 100,000 Iraqis fighting for their freedom." Or so he hoped at the time.

Today, as a year ago, the primary responsibility for fighting Iraq's "enemies" rests with the United States. Meanwhile, Iraqi clergy and tribal leaders cut deals that allow a town such as Fallujah, which was once under siege by U.S. Marines, to emerge as a mini Taliban-like state under the control of mujaheddin who resisted the U.S. occupation, according to an Associated Press report on Tuesday. The selling of alcohol can get you a flogging and "Western" style haircuts are forbidden, the AP said. "We must capitalize on our victory over the Americans and implement Islamic sharia laws," cleric Abdul-Qader al-Aloussi told the wire service. Bush said on Monday night: "We're making security a shared responsibility in Fallujah." Who's briefing that man?

And down south? After weeks of fighting forces of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whom we threatened to kill or capture and whose militia we once promised to destroy, the militia and Sadr are still free as birds, thanks to "negotiations" by what Bush calls "respected Shia leaders."

So we have another Memorial Day with U.S. troops far from home being killed and wounded as they provide manpower in another country's "defense." And what will be the killed-in-action total as of Memorial Day 2005?

kingc@washpost.com