October 20, 2006, was a critical date in the Iraq War. It was not as memorable as December 7 or the day the Tet Offensive began, but it was just as significant for the war in Iraq.
It was the date that Americans demonstrated they were tired of this war and had lost their will to wage it. Typical of a 21st century milestone, this event was not measured by a statistical poll with sophisticated metrics.
Instead, it was seen in the response to the theatrical release that day of a movie about another war, in which personal sacrifice and national support were central themes. Clint Eastwood's "Flags of our Fathers" was released with great marketing fanfare and received uniform critical appraisal, but to describe it politely, the box-office revenue disappointed.
The American audience's reaction to "Flags of Our Fathers" was the canary in the coal mine of our national will. The explosion followed 18 days later, when the Democratic Party administered what President Bush called a "thumping" to the Republican Party in midterm congressional elections.
Marketing gurus will tell you that price matters. You get what you pay for. The war on terror is no different. It has been waged on the cheap, and the results reflect the stinginess of the strategy.
What does on the cheap mean? It means we have tried to substitute inexpensive goods (dollars) for vital national resources (commitment and participation by a significant percentage of our people). It means that we have engaged in understaffed operations that experts like Gen. Shinseki foresaw would require five times the allocated troops.
Cheap means that we did not even ask our own people to pay for the war. First, we promised that oil revenues would cover the costs, and when that failed to work, we resorted to borrowing from the Chinese central government.
Cheap has a cost. And the cost of running the Iraq War on the cheap has been a loss of credibility with the American public and the world at large when we need it the most. Running the war on the cheap has left the United States with a military that is in the worst shape since Vietnam.
Marketing gurus will also tell you that "cheap goods" is a short-term strategy. On November 8, voters declared they were unwilling to continue this war, even at the low price most of them have had to pay. It was a declaration that they wanted something different than what was being delivered.
Last week, Vice President Cheney began reiterating that Iraq is central to the war on terror and that quick withdrawal would leave the United States weaker. This week, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to institute a military draft to share the burden of the war among all Americans and to relieve the stress on our overextended military forces.
Both are right, but neither will get much traction. Given that there was no terrorist network in Iraq before the war and now there is, Cheney has forever lost credibility. Given the lack of any earlier dialogue with the American public, Rangel's call for a draft will fall on deaf ears. A return to conscription is a necessary tonic for the future, but for now, Americans are tired. They don't want to hear about casualties and certainly don't want their loved ones in military service.
In the end, the U.S. military will withdraw from Iraq. The only debate is whether that withdrawal will be sooner or later, massive or staged, with or without the chaos of the evacuation of Saigon more than 30 years ago. The terrorism, murders and torture now going on in Iraq between different militias and religious factions are barometers of the progress of de facto partitioning along ethnic and religious lines that is currently under way.
The best indication of the inevitability of withdrawal is the request by U.S. generals for 20,000 more troops. Twenty thousand more "boots on the ground" will not win this war. They will only provide the additional force for an orderly withdrawal (in military terms, a retrograde maneuver).
Losing Iraq may increase the terrorist threat to the United States. It will certainly take decades for U.S. prestige and the health of our armed forces to recover from the war in Iraq. It's hoped the United States will never again violate the Powell Doctrine of a clear mission, overwhelming force and careful planning, and that the U.S. will never again try to wage a war of survival on the cheap.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel USMCR Steve Brozak served briefly in Iraq and Kuwait before he was released from active duty in 2003.