To arms

March 20, 2003

ONE OF THE BLESSINGS of American democracy is a military that takes its orders from civilians and stays out of politics.

This is so ingrained in American thinking that the alternative is almost beyond imagining.

Yet there are countries around the world where generals have to be factored into the political reckoning, and it distorts the entire framework of public life.

Today the American military is setting out to fulfill the orders it has received. Readers know that this page takes issue with the policy that led to those orders. But this has been a debate among civilians. And though the arguments will continue, the orders have been given - and that marks a turn in the road.

Today, the men and women of the armed forces are going into harm's way. We are confident that they will make all Americans proud of their valor, their professionalism, and their devotion to duty.

And we are confident, too, that they will acquit themselves well in their conduct toward innocent Iraqis.

The hazards they encounter will be abundant. The roads they must follow will be treacherous. Casualties are a certainty.

No one - not President Bush, not his critics, not his military aides, not the peace demonstrators, and especially not the soldiers in the desert - doubts the seriousness and peril of this operation. Americans are united in that sense.

And that's why a quick victory in Iraq is essential. The country must rely on the troops and pilots and sailors now going into action to settle the future of Iraq.

The sooner it ends, the better for all. The better it will be for the Iraqi people, the better it will be for America's standing in the world, the better it will be for the American fighting men and women who have been sent from halfway around the globe.

American society has divided over this war in a way that is deeply disappointing; the manner in which the country has arrived at this point can be satisfactory to neither side in the debate. The run-up to the war was botched. That puts a heavier burden on the men and women now carrying the fight. It is left to them to compensate, through sacrifice and determination, for errors already committed.

Barely more than 100 years ago, the U.S. Army and Navy scored a smashing victory over Spain. America seized parts of an empire, and the whole business was described as "a splendid little war." The 20th century knocked the stuffing out of that sort of jingoism.

Americans are going into this fight with trepidation and with a clear-eyed sense of realism. War demands a large measure of respect; those who fight it deserve no less.

What do we wish for?

Courage. Fortitude. Vigilance. Life. Victory. Peace.

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