Paul Greenberg

How’s the war going? It all depends on who’s talking — or writing. Do you go with the doubters-at-a-distance who’ve been saying the war was lost even before it began? Or with the separate but equally sure experts who’ve been assuring us we’re on the verge of victory — for years now.

Do we finally admit all is lost when the next IED or car bomb takes its toll? Not just on the ground but in the spirit. It’s tempting. Enough has been more than enough. And yet not enough for Americans to accept defeat. We’ve been here before. In Korea. In Vietnam. Through unity and division, advance and retreat and stalemate. There are no guarantees in history, only the inescapable responsibility of making it, however much we might prefer not to.

We scan the headlines looking for hope. Should we take heart from the latest news out of Anbar, where Sunni chieftains have finally decided to team up with the Americans against the terrorists who’ve been horning in on their traditional territory? The change there has been the most dramatic — and most welcome — of the war’s various ups and downs and sidewayses.

Remember when Anbar was the Triangle of Death, and even the professional optimists were admitting it was lost? It hasn’t been too long — just last year — since the Marine Corps’ chief of intelligence was quoted in the Washington Post as having given up hope for that province. He was said to have concluded that the prospects of securing the Sunni heartland “are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the situation there.”

The absence of any effective government in that western province, according to his report, had created “a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, which has become the province’s most significant political force.”

But that was before David Petraeus had taken command of Coalition forces, and before the surge he’d planned — and the 30,000 additional troops he’d requested to carry it out — had begun to have their effect. It was also before it had become clear that al-Qaida had overplayed its hand, as fanatics always do, by trying to push around the local sheiks. Things now look as good in Anbar as they looked bad a year ago.

The pendulum has swung — but could swing back again. War is uncertain hell. As an American general named Eisenhower once noted, “Every war will surprise you.” This one certainly has. Again and again.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.