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Four Years And Out?

This column was written by James Thayer.
The soldier lay on the ground, his cheek pressed into the dirt. Thick ropes of fog hid the low trees and scrub brush and the dangers on the ridge ahead. No matter how he squinted, he couldn't see through the blind white. The soldier's name was Henry Gunther, and he was from Baltimore.

He was far from home, lying there below a ridge called the Côte Romagne. He crawled forward a few feet, his rifle cradled in his arms, then dropped back to his belly, flat as a worm. To his left, his sergeant inched along, also on the ground. A manned roadblock might be ahead, they'd been told.

Then – the record is not clear – either Gunther or the sergeant, Ernest Powell – rose first, and began walking deeper into the fog blur. The other got to his feet and followed.

Bullets suddenly split the air above them, accompanied by the hammering of a heavy machine gun somewhere up ahead in the haze. Gunther sprinted forward, toward the sound. Sergeant Powell shouted for him to stop.

A wedge of sunlight abruptly made it through the fog. A German machine gun nest was at the roadblock, startlingly close. And – the oddest thing – the German soldiers had stopped shooting, and were waving at Gunther, gesturing that he should turn back. But he continued to run toward them. They waved again, but he kept coming.

Then came a short burst, no more than five rounds. A bullet entered Gunther's head at the left temple, and he was dead before his body or his rifle found the ground.

The time was 10:59 in the morning, November 11, 1918; one minute to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the beginning of the armistice that ended the First World War. Henry Gunther was the last American to die in that conflict.

The U.S. military involvement in the Great War lasted one year and seven months.

This war and America's other wars, before and since, have taught its citizens a simple lesson. It is a lesson that is now deeply ingrained in the national consciousness, as much a part of the common knowledge as voting on Tuesdays or removing hats for the national anthem.

And it is a lesson which could lead to defeat in the war on terror.

The precise beginnings and ends to wars are sometimes hard to determine, and are often debatable, but a consensus develops over time. The War of 1812 began on June 18, 1812, when President James Madison signed a declaration of war. It was ended two and a half years later by the Treaty of Ghent.

The American Civil War began April 12, 1861 when Confederate soldiers fired on Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter, in Charleston. The South surrendered on April 9, 1865 at the Appomattox Court House. The war had lasted four years, less three days.

Between the Day that Will Live in Infamy and Victory over Japan Day (August 15, 1945), three years, eight months and eight days elapsed.

The Korean Conflict — termed a conflict by diplomats and politicians charged with parsing words, but a war by everyone who was there — began just before dawn on June 25, 1950, when 135,000 North Korean troops crossed the 38th Parallel, advancing behind a massive, rolling artillery barrage. A cease-fire was declared July 27, 1953, three years, one month, and two days later.

The lesson: Americans fight short wars.

In its 230 years of history the United States has engaged in only relatively quick military engagements. The last two and a third centuries have seen a world ravaged by constant, brutal hostilities, yet American military forces are in-and-out in three to four years.

There are two exceptions, of course. Precisely when the Vietnam War began for Americans is hard to say, but March 1965 – when 3,500 Marines, the first combat troops – landed in South Vietnam (there were already about 20,000 U.S. advisers in the country) – is as good a moment to pinpoint as any. America's involvement ended in January 1973 when President Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action. United States troops were then quickly withdrawn. So the American portion of the war lasted about eight years. The distinction between Vietnam and the other wars listed above is that the United States lost the Vietnam War.

The other exception is the War of Independence. The first battles – Lexington and Concord – occurred in April 1775, and the war ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Yet even this length of time – eight years – is short, in terms of war.

How can eight years of war be short?

War has ravaged Sudan almost without let-up for the past 51 years, first as a conflict between the Christian south and the Arab Muslim north, and now between rebel groups and the fundamentalist Khartoum government. The war is as vicious as any other: 200,000 Nuba and Southern Sudanese women and children have been stolen from their homes and taken north into slavery. This combat has no end in sight.

Guatemala suffered 36 years of continuous war, ending in 1996, during which, by conservative estimate, 100,000 people were killed.

Further back in history: It is difficult today to remember that the French were at one time good at fighting. French Catholics battled French Huguenots for almost 50 years, ending in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. And the French fought the English in the Hundred Years War, so-named because that phrase is more mellifluous than the struggle's actual length, 116 years.

Everyone in Europe fought everyone else in Europe – the battles mostly in Germany – between 1618 and 1648 in the Thirty Years War.

The Crusades lasted from 1095 when Pope Urban II sent warriors to fight the Turks (the First Crusade) to 1291 when Acre fell, and with it the last of Christian rule in Muslim lands, at the end of the Ninth (and last) Crusade – which had been launched by Edward I of England. That's 196 years of more or less continuous war.

The Italian military (granted, not a phrase that springs readily to mind) has had only one recent success, the 1935 invasion and conquering of Ethiopia, which is to say, a desert wasteland. But at one time the Italians were warriors. The Italian Wars is a term given to a series of conflicts with names such as the War of the League of Cambria and the Hapsburg-Valois War, and even though historians have broken the hostilities into units, it was one long war, interrupted by a few months of peace here and there, involving the Republic of Venice, the Papal States, other Italian city-states, Spain, France, and who knows who else, from 1494 to 1559, a total of 65 years.

The descendents of John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster, were called the House of Lancaster, and favored the red rose as their symbol. The descendants of Richard, Duke of York, were known as the House of York, whose symbol was the white rose. When the houses fought over the throne of England, it was called the War of the Roses, and it lasted 30 years, from 1455 to 1485.

It only takes a glance at history to know that nothing intrinsic in war limits conflicts to the American experience. Due to the quirks of history or to the skill of America's military or to luck – presuming anything regarding war can be called luck – the United States has fought short wars.

Perhaps other nations, too, have been shaped by America's experience with war. By late summer 1945, Japan had been torpedoed, machine gunned, fire bombed and A-bombed virtually back to a pre-historic era. Its citizens – those who remained – looked out at the expanses of scattered bricks and muddy craters and charred wood, and declared that their nation would never fight again. Today, with muscular, imperialistic China a few miles to the west, and lunatic, bombastic North Korea even closer, the citizens of Japan are still satisfied with a military that is little more than a coast guard. The same lesson was learned by Japan's wartime ally. By the end of World War II, Germany from the Rhine to the Oder had been scythed down to the dirt by the Allies. Today – much of a century later – it is a nation that still cannot bear the thought of its soldiers wearing anything but U.N. peacekeepers' blue helmets. Germany was taught a lesson by war: that its destiny is intractable pacifism.

And Iran's new foreign minister, Manuchehr Motakki, says, "We are sure the U.S. will return to saner policies." Meaning, he's confident America will quit the war on terror soon. It's been four and a half years now since war was thrust on us, and America's patience is quickly thinning.

The United States cannot lose the war on terror militarily. Our soldiers are too good, too well-equipped, and too ferocious. But we can still lose the war, if the American people – antsy and staring at our calendars, the wrong lesson of our military history heavy upon us – order them home.
By James Thayer