Posted: Mar 25, 2003 12:00 AM

My uncle Edward Rosenfeld, now 90, was a Marine who fought at Iwo Jima. Fortunately for him, he was not in the first, nor the second wave of Marines to hit the island, because some of those units suffered casualties of up to 75 percent. But he was in the third wave, and he and his comrades had the awful job of attempting to roust the last Japanese soldiers out of their caves and hiding places. "People wondered," Uncle Ed reminisced several years ago, "why we didn't take more Japanese prisoners. At first, we tried to. But one Japanese soldier came out with his hands up and then dropped to the ground so that the guy behind him could open fire. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We didn't take prisoners after that."

I thought of that story when news broke of a small group of Iraqi soldiers who flew a white flag at our Marines only to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at their vehicle. The Washington Post reports that "as many as nine Marines" were killed. The tactic succeeded in killing Americans -- once. It won't happen again. The Iraqis have also reportedly moved soldiers and equipment into civilian neighborhoods in Basra and other cities. To hide behind civilians is obviously criminal and primitive. What baffles me is: Don't the Iraqis think it unmanly?

The fragility of the liberal press is once again on display. In Afghanistan, when victory was not achieved within 72 hours, The New York Times ran articles predicting another "quagmire," and many long beards reminded us that Afghanistan had been the graveyard of British and Russian imperialist ambitions. Now, after only four days of battle, and after only one day of casualties, The Washington Post headlines, "U.S. Losses Expose Risks, Raise Doubts About Strategy."

Did the analysts raising these doubts actually believe that we could fight a completely casualty-free land war? Did they believe we could take Baghdad in 24 hours?

This, too, casts the mind back to Iwo Jima. Could the United States have won World War II if our press reported that war as they are reporting this one? The participation of journalists is fine in principle, and certainly one respects their personal courage in choosing to be on the front lines, but in the age of television, their presence tends to exacerbate an already extreme impatience among the chattering class. When war is a TV show, you tend to want a climax within two hours -- and when it doesn't come, you start suspecting that there's a problem with the director or the script.

By contrast, the toughness of World War II America is quite stunning 60 years out. Iwo Jima is an island about one quarter the size of Manhattan, on which 22,000 Japanese defenders were securely dug in. The campaign was described as "throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete." But it was even more horrible and uglier than that -- for both sides. To get at the Japanese who were below ground firing at the unprotected Americans, the Marines poured gasoline into the catacombs. The Marine assault on the island took 36 days. The Japanese knew every inch of the island, and moved through and under it. Even when Marines tried to sleep, they never knew when they might be ambushed.

Seventy thousand Marines were eventually able to secure the island and raise the flag over Mt. Suribachi. But the victory claimed the lives of 6,800 Americans and wounded more than 19,000. Of the 22,000 Japanese on the island, only 1,083 survived. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said of that campaign, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue." Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and sailors for actions on Iwo. Of the thousands who lie buried there, James Bradley relates in "Flags of Our Fathers" that someone chiseled the followed message on the gate of the cemetery: "When you go home/Tell them for us and say/For your tomorrow/We gave our today."

Intellectuals, pundits, journalists and entertainers have greatly changed in the intervening 60 years. It is a relief to see, however, that our soldiers have not.