Americans like their wars to end with the enemy's complete, like with Japan aboard the Battleship Missouri in World War II.
When United States forces quickly drove to Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein, it seemed like the old war script was as good as new. But as the report of the Iraq Study Group released this past week made clear, three years into the fighting in Iraq with American deaths approaching 3,000, military victory is an unlikely scenario.
"All wars end. But I would argue very few wars end the way that either or both belligerents foresaw it ending at the start," retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Kuehl, who teaches at the National Defense University, told CBS News correspondent Bob Orr. "The danger of starting a war is that you don't know where it's going to lead. Unless you're Rome and Carthage, or Lee's surrender, or the deck of the Missouri, which is not the norm, then the endings of war are generally very, very messy. Very, very uncertain."
Perhaps the most memorable recent exception to that was the end of World War II, when America's enemies were vanquished.
"In 1945 Germany, Japan — they're finished. And the Korean War is a good example of the other extreme of war," Kuehl said.
In 1950, American forces went to Korea to prevent a Communist takeover of the South. Today, 30,000 American troops still remain there.
"So both sides, in effect in 1953 say, 'Time out.' The time out is still in existence," Kuehl said.
Two decades later, the U.S. found itself in a similar situation in Vietnam. Weary of growing casualties, American public opinion turned against the war. U.S. troops withdrew and South Vietnamese forces took over combat roles. They were overwhelmed by the communist North Vietnamese in 1975. Few will forget those scenes of Americans fleeing Vietnam as Saigon fell.
And now American support for the war in Iraq is crumbling, as seen in last month's mid-term elections and in our most recent CBS News poll. 56 percent of those polled say it was a mistake for the U.S. to get involved in Iraq.
"We cannot be successful in war without the backing, the support of the American populace," Kuehl said.
On Wednesday the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group called for "a new way forward" in Iraq. President Bush said he welcomed the report which emphasizes the importance of a diplomatic solution. But his words left some wondering.
"We do not recognize a 'stay the course' solution," committee co-chairman and former Secretary of State James Baker said. "In our opinion that is no longer a viable approach."
Mr. Bush insists that the United States will prevail, but others are less sure.
"It's clear to everyone in Iraq that the United States is going," Harvard historian and author of "The War of the World," Niall Ferguson said. "It's only a matter of when."
"Kipling wrote a wonderful short story called 'On the City Walls,' in which he characterized British rule in India as essentially being a kind of refereeing or umpiring role to stop Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering each other," he said. "I think that's very much the role that the United States unwittingly finds itself playing in Iraq today: Trying to stop Sunnis and Shias from killing one another."
Ferguson, originally a supporter of the war, said he thinks attempts to import a democratic revolution to Iraq were naïve.
"The trouble is, when you democratize multi-ethnic societies, particularly in conditions of considerable economic chaos and insecurity, people don't sit down and settle their differences amicably in parliaments," he said. "They're much more likely to take up arms."
"The worst outcome is that this civil war escalates," he added. "It can get an awful lot bigger. We could look back and say 3,000 fatalities a month was nothing. It's perfectly possible that a conflict like this can ultimately kill more than a million people. Now best-case scenario is that sanity prevails and that Sunnis as a minority realize that pushing, pushing, pushing for a military solution leaves them vulnerable to ethnic cleansing, to eradication. And Shiites realize that whatever the benefits of democracy might be, there will be no benefits if it all goes up in flames in a massive civil war. I think a deal can still be cut. But it's getting harder and harder every day."
Historian Martin Van Creveld of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said the United States' "defeat is inevitable," but a withdrawal has its risks.
"They will have to get back to the Kuwait border, maybe some to the Jordan border," he said. "And on the way, they're clearly going to suffer losses."
Van Creveld says oil, Israel and Iran will keep U.S. forces in the Mideast for years to come.
"The country that gained without any doubt from this: the Iranians," he said. "And the Iranians cannot wait for the day when you leave Iraq and then they will see what they can do."
Ferguson says the United States will survive the Iraq war and retain the world's most dominant economy and strongest military force. But in the months or years ahead, as we search for a way out with honor, we are on our own.
"I think the lesson of history tells us that there's no good way to get out of a mess like this," Ferguson said. "And that it's very unlikely now that a magic bullet can be found, that can be fired at Baghdad, fired at Iraq in such a way as to salvage American credibility."
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