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Four and Out?

The dangerous lesson America's wars have taught us.

12:00 AM, Apr 6, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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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.