Critics of the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq called for by President Bush in January, early on cited American losses and then announced the plan's failure. Supporters have seen progress from new tactics (which, many argue, should have been adopted far earlier).
Such wide disagreement over a military campaign in progress is not that unusual. Sixty years after World War II, historians, even with the benefits of hindsight, still argue over the cost-benefit ratios and strategic results of diverse battles from Operation Market Garden to Okinawa.
The U.S. military reports that the surge in Iraq has helped reduce violence and defeat terrorists. But its officers also warn of manpower shortages, as well as commitments in Europe, Japan, the Balkans, Korea and elsewhere in the Middle East. We can't maintain the surge at present manpower levels in Iraq indefinitely.
So how do we know whether the surge is working — especially whether its apparent present tactical success will translate into long-term strategic advantage?
In September, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, will issue a status report on the war to Congress. Experts then will study quality-of-life issues in Iraq, such as the status of water, power and sewage services. American casualty figures will be weighed against a sense of improving or worsening security. And we will again examine the Iraqi government's ability to provide effective antiterrorist forces and relieve some of our responsibilities.
But in the meantime, the American public can look to more subtle indicators to get some sense of Gen. Petraeus' current progress or failure.
Do Democratic opposition leaders keep blaming each other for voting for the Iraq war? Or are they now talking about expanding military operations to other countries? Sen. Hillary Clinton once was damned for voting to authorize the war in Iraq. But her even more liberal rival Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois now expresses willingness to invade nuclear Islamic Pakistan.
Do antiwar politicians often proclaim our defeat in Iraq — or instead worry the war might be won? In the spring, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Iraq was lost, the surge a failure and Gen. Petraeus not "in touch." We haven't seen Mr. Reid much lately.
But we have heard from the House majority whip, Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat. He is worried Gen. Petraeus' good news about the surge might be "a real problem for us" — meaning antiwar Democrats. And at a congressional briefing, when Gen. Jack Keane reviewed the positive signs from the surge, Rep. Nancy Boyda, Kansas Democrat, walked out. She complained there was "only so much that you could take... after so much of the frustration of having to listen to what we listened to."
What do we hear from those who cited our success in the initial war but then wrote of the chaos of the occupation? Democratic analysts Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack recently returned from Iraq to co-author a New York Times op-ed titled "A war we just might win." Respected veteran New York Times reporter John Burns believes the surge has markedly improved security in Iraq.
Has furor over President Bush's Iraq war and larger antiterror campaign resulted in concrete Democratic action — or remained largely rhetorical? Well, so far, no legislation has been passed that would bring home the troops right now, close down Guantanamo or repeal the Patriot Act. Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Damascus, there have been no more Democratic forays into Middle East foreign policy to seek an alternative to present administration policies.
Constantly changing positions on the war should not be surprising when we remember that a vast majority of American people — and most Democrats in Congress — favored invading Iraq just four years ago. And current polls show that over the last few weeks, Americans are not as pessimistic that the surge won't work.
Of course, we all have political biases and innately different views about what brings about war and peace, making disagreement inevitable. And there is always a fog of war that makes it hard to determine the pulse of any ongoing battle.
Yet the universal human desire to be associated in the here and now with the assumed winning side — and to shun perceived defeat — trumps them all. Throughout this war, that natural urge explains most of the volatile and shifting views of our politicians, pundits and media as they scramble to readjust to the up-and-down daily news from Iraq.
And so it is with the latest positioning about the surge that to a variety of observers seems successful, at least for now.
Victor Davis Hanson is a nationally syndicated columnist and a classicist and historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War."