Guest opinion

In the debate about the looming war with Iraq, little has been said about the consequences following the most frequently assumed outcome: Saddam Hussein's fall from power due to failed weapons inspections.

Inside Iraq, the initial shape of any new government will depend on whether regime change comes at the hands of U.S. troops or through internal revolt. Should the Iraqis mount a determined resistance, many U.S. military and Iraqi soldiers and civilians will die. If the generals throw out Saddam, war might be truncated or even avoided - as would happen in the event Baghdad cooperated fully with U.N. inspectors.

Should war come, however, Iraq's long-term prospects will depend largely on the intensity and durability of the post-war U.S. commitment to rebuilding a country. A country situated in a region with increasing hostility to growing U.S. military presence, with unfamiliar cultural norms, with disparate ethnic and religious elements, and with no democratic traditions. Ironically, as U.S. history shows, "success" here may rest more on the recognition that we have a "home front" that calls for real sacrifices by Americans.

In both World Wars (1917-18 and 1941-45), Americans didn't have to be told they were at war: they knew it. Thousands (millions in WWII) were drafted and served at home and in combat zones. Victory gardens were planted; foil and metal were collected; women rolled bandages and thousands went to work in place of men called to military service "for the duration." Ration cards were issued and blackouts were enforced. These changes in routine were real and, for some, were real sacrifices. But post-WWI America, in a hurry to return to its own affairs, refused the opportunity to influence the peace, choosing to withdraw into an insecure isolation - with calamitous results.

Fortunately, post-WWII was different; debate was not about whether to remain engaged but how best to translate battlefield victory into a peace that could preclude the rise of new militarist societies. In part, this was a successful effort: former foes Germany and Italy are today strong democracies in an expanding European Union while in Asia, democracy flourishes in Japan. And where not immediately successful - e.g., the 1950-53 Korean War and the start of the Cold War - the sacrifices of that WWII generation seemed to strengthen the character of those in the new generation who understood that peace is a never-ending struggle requiring as much (if different forms of) significant sacrifice as war.

After Korea, the spirit of sacrifice - and the character it builds - seemed to ebb and eventually disappear for many. Vietnam was but the first instance in which the general U.S. population was not asked to sacrifice, to "become invested," either in the military struggle or in post-conflict rebuilding. In 1972, the U.S. effectively abandoned a war-ravaged South Vietnam. For some two decades, Washington refused meaningful relations with a united but deeply impoverished Vietnam. With conscription gone, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, and the Persian Gulf in 1990-91, all of which involved the use of U.S. military forces in varied but significant numbers, made little impression on most Americans. The ongoing peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia rarely are mentioned in the general press. And in the "global war against terror," the Bush administration's clarion call is not for ration cards but for credit cards - spend, spend, spend.

Human nature being what it is, unless people have a stake in the outcome of events, they will rarely stay committed. Today, this is apparent in Afghanistan. The post-war, U.S.-backed government is struggling to sustain itself in the face of a clearly inadequate International Security Assistance Force and insufficient monetary resources for rebuilding the country and demonstrating that peace really is worth sacrifice.

After a decade of economic sanctions, let alone a possible new war, Iraq's post-Saddam future (when it comes) is very much in doubt. Unless more Americans become more deeply "invested" in what is going on - first by opposing armed conflict but, should the war come anyway, to press for a rapid end to hostilities and a real commitment to building a new Iraq - the United States may find that future sacrifices, no matter how great, are insufficient to sustain the climate of peace in which our own liberties can flourish.

Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, DC.

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