For decades, Americans had it hammered into their heads that they were destined to win the wars but lose the peace. That's not going to happen to us, the Bush administration vowed in the run-up to Iraq, and set about planning the peace to follow the war, as though victory were some boring though necessary prologue to the real plot. They were worried that the victory might turn out to be too sweeping and give the impression of being an attack by prodigiously powerful America on wincingly weak Iraq. They hoped for a picture of victims of shock and awe in Baghdad, a Shi'ite uprising as soon as the sign was given, a mass flow of stunned soldiers surrendering to generous captors, and an administrative and military system that would begin functioning anew as soon as the Saddam Hussein regime had been removed; in short, the Wehrmacht would become the Bundeswehr.

Americans are talked to in terms that everyone can get a handle on. Iraq is the size of California. The Najaf-Karbala-Baghdad arena shrank to the dimensions of Connecticut. Baghdad, 600 square kilometers of built-up area that is nearly all horizontal with little of the vertical, is like Los Angeles. Still, though, it's one thing if you travel comfortably from San Diego via Disneyland to Los Angeles, and quite another if you get caught in encounters along the main highway (most of the fighting in Iraq so far has been at the company level, at most) and are preparing to breach. In the standard mix of fire and motion, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both at once, it was understood from the start that the aerial forces would first generate fire, the ground forces would move 500 kilometers to the outskirts of Baghdad, and then, as the situation developed, the battle for the capital would be fought.

In the first year of the confrontation with the Palestinians here, officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) talked about developments along one of three possible tracks: red, gray and green. The dream of President George W. Bush was to gallop to Baghdad on the green course. Even those - both within the administration and outside - who had reservations about his policy did not rule out the probability that this dream would be fulfilled. A case in point is Wesley Clark, a retired general, the former commander of NATO and of the European theater under his acquaintance from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, and now a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination for president (though he will make do with vice president or an appointment as secretary of state).

Clark was the commander in chief of the Kosovo campaign - 78 days of bombing without attack helicopters and with a hasty commitment by Clinton not to send in ground forces - and before that was Pentagon representative on the steering team of the Bosnia campaign. He said last summer that he opposed a unilateral operation in Iraq without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. Last month, he, like those around Bush who wear rose-tinted glasses, forecast a victory within two weeks. It would look like this: on the first day an air attack, Shi'ite uprisings and land movement; by the fourth day, significant numbers of forces would have reached the outskirts of Baghdad; on the seventh day, the defenses around Baghdad collapse; by the 14th day the organized defense inside Baghdad would be almost entirely defeated, with the exception of isolated pockets. Clark, like others, warned that the true Iraqi problem, the political one (and the discontinuation of contact by the occupying army), should be expected after the military victory, which could be taken for granted.

Clark added a cautionary note: without Turkey, should it persist in its refusal to open its back door to Iraq from the north, additional time would be required to complete the mission. One doesn't need 40 years of military experience to know that this would be a double blow to the operational plan, involving a sudden delay of two to three weeks until an armored division (one of three) of the American force could be put into action. In any event, this development eliminated the northern aspect of the dilemma facing the Iraqi high command about where to concentrate the defensive effort around Baghdad.

The Turkey factor

The most striking social and political fact that differentiates the Iraq conflict from the Vietnam War is the removal of the middle and educated classes from intervention and protest over the affairs of the military, because since 1973 American young people have not been subject to the draft. Thus also the Turkish front that wasn't - and which was not compensated for by the improvised integration of Special Forces, air cover and the airborne transport of paratroopers from a base in Italy - is the most important development so far in the war. It is comparable to the decision by Jordan's King Hussein in October 1973 not to involve his country in the two-front war launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel, a decision that made it possible for the General Staff's sole reserve force, the 146th Division, under the command of Major General Moshe Peled, to abandon Central Command and take part in the fighting on the Golan Heights and afterward in Sinai.

The Bush administration was well aware of the centrality of Turkey in the campaign. Turkey is the favorite of the war's supporters, all the way up to Vice President Richard Cheney (one of whose assistants is slated to become ambassador to Ankara) and the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. The failure to recruit Turkey created tension between the diplomatic and political necessity, and the military necessity. The senior officer corps, if it had been up to them, would have waited for weeks, even months, until force accumulation was complete. In Washington, though, the supremacy of the civilian level over the military is clear, and Bush's considerations were broader, albeit also in some cases more selfish, than those of the military men.

As the person responsible for the supreme level of statesmanship, for meta-strategy, the president must also tend to his allies, who are liable to drop out if he should tarry, and also consider other dangers, such as North Korea and Iran, which are liable to draw encouragement from further erosion of his resolve. Only a few months ago, Bush delayed the attack, one reason being to get through the midterm Congressional elections, but in just a few more months an even more important election season will be getting under way - the contest for the presidency in 2004. Severing the military clock from the political one obligated war either now, or only - like the establishment of the Palestinian state - after the elections.

In the command tent

The commander of Bush's Republican guard is Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary. He is familiar with the military machine inside and out - as a pilot in the Navy during his military service, as a member of Congress, as chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, as a fairly, though not excessively, senior officer in the reserves (rank of colonel). This is his second stint at the head of the Pentagon. In 1976, the heads of the military branches were members of a committee that required general agreement. Now, thanks to legislation imposed by Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top adviser to the civilian level. The Special Forces are under separate command, and the arena commanders, among them General Tommy Franks, are directly accountable to the president and the secretary.

A commander like Franks consults downward with the commanders of the secondary forces in the arena; sideways with the commanders who are his equals in rank and are responsible for force building; and upward with the chairman, the secretary and the president. But once the plan is approved, implementation is in his hands. Franks, in his command tent, decides on the major moves, when and where to bomb (under political, intelligence, legal and logistic limitations), where to move and in what force. Bush, with Rumsfeld alongside, is the commander-in-chief of the war in Iraq, but Franks is the commander-in-chief of the campaign for Baghdad (and the more junior generals are commanding the battles that together make up the campaign).

From his predecessor, General Anthony Zinni, Franks received an off-the-shelf plan that was largely defensive in character. This is the plan that Rumsfeld flayed as being "old and dry" this week, and crying out for updating. Zinni, who was the arena commander during Operation Desert Fox - four days of bombing in Iraq at the end of 1998 - was also unrelentingly suspicious of the ability of Iraqi exiles (relying on them, he said, would produce a "Bay of Goats," like the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba at the outset of the Kennedy administration). He is also ideologically close to Colin Powell, Rumsfeld's rival in the Bush administration and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time of the Gulf War in 1991.

Powell's aide at the end of his tenure in the military, General Barry McCaffrey, a combat commander in the 1991 war and afterward the White House drug policy director under President Clinton, moved from pre-war criticism to support for the troops, but with a dig at Rumsfeld for being in a rush to get started before the Third Infantry Division - McCaffrey's hallowed corps in the previous war (when it was the 24th Division) - had reached Kuwait.

When Powell tries to say something positive about the armed forces, he doesn't talk about Franks, or about the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, but waxes nostalgic in a personal vein: how time flies, he still remembers the day Vincent Brooks became an officer, as the top cadet in his class (the first time a black achieved that distinction) at West Point. Brooks' father, Leo Brooks, was a general in Powell's class, and both his sons are now generals, too, one at West Point and the other as Franks' operations officer and regular briefer of the press in Qatar, in the daily show that is broadcast around the world. It's all in the family: Bush's political rival in 2000, Senator John McCain, supports the war - not one American thinks he could manage it better than the president - and the USS John S. McCain, the destroyer that commemorates his father, Admiral McCain, was honored with one of the first volleys of missiles fired in the war.

In the distinction he makes between wish and plan, Rumsfeld is right in denying that his cards have been called; he hoped for better cards than these, but the whole deck was prepared in advance. The generals in Iraq, some of whose light thoughts of regret (notably the sentiments voiced by General William Wallace, the commander of the army's V Corps) haunted Rumsfeld this week, promised on the eve of the war that they would be able to fight and accumulate forces simultaneously and that the forces committed to the campaign were sufficient - one reason being that inter-arm coordination was better now than in the past. Franks and his officers did not plan the green course alone. They also had to plan defense and counterattack, should Saddam strike first at Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan or Israel, and in any event no military plan gambles on a sole mode of operation, whose conditions and therefore also prospects of being realized are unknown.

The rash comparison to the Vietnam War, which has gained adherents in Israel as well, is totally baseless. In Vietnam, as earlier in Korea, the Americans ran into Sisyphean defense of the south by the north, two parts of the same country, and the enemy had a Chinese back and a Soviet shoulder. In Iraq, they came to dislodge the regime - in the eyes of General Myers, that is the gist of the achievement that's required, the victory - and to prevent the country's partition into north and south.

Myers' deputy, Marine General Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who is the son of an Italian immigrant ("only in America" can one go from the depths to the top in one generation, he emoted two months ago), was the commander of a Marines platoon in Vietnam. That was the formative experience of his life; he recalls the names of the seven dead from his unit day in and day out. It's not surprising that this week he defended the right of tensed-up Marines to kill civilians accidentally. He still recalls his first day in Vietnam, a junior lieutenant with his ranks shining, on the outside bench of a truck. From the inside bench, an experienced major nudged him and said that the veterans sit inside, the new guys on the outside don't survive.

In a speech marking the 35th anniversary of the battle for Hue, during the Tet offensive of the Vietcong, Pace indicated that he is not apprehensive about fighting against the Republican Guard or about terrorist attacks on the streets of Baghdad. In an offensive, he noted, the attacker should have a 3:1 advantage in strength, but in Hue 2,500 Americans defeated 11,000 Vietnamese, most of whom were soldiers from the army of the north.

"We lost the war," a local guide from the north of Vietnam recently told an Israeli colonel who was traveling in Vietnam. The Israeli was surprised: after all, the war ended 30 years ago in a political deadlock, and two years later in a military victory of the north and the conquest, or liberation, of Saigon. No, the local man said, we lost - the Americans left, but their way of life was victorious and is now a role model for us, too.

From the Nile to the Euphrates

One evening in Tehran - the date, if memory serves well, was February 7, 1963 - two IDF colonels were eating at a well-known local nightclub. The host was the Israeli military attache, Yaakov Nimrodi, and his guest was the commander of the Staff and Command School, Avraham Tamir. It was Tamir's last evening of a professional visit, a few hours before he was due to fly home. Before the two could sum up their security impressions, they were accosted by two dancers from the club who asked if they could join them. It was only by resorting to combat in a built-up area that they escaped the clutches of the two dancers. To protect Tamir's secret, Nimrodi introduced him as a foreign colleague, "the Iraqi attache." In his efforts to be rid of the dancer that latched on to him, Tamir told her that he had to fly to Baghdad because there was going to be a military coup there the next day and he was one of the main conspirators.

Gathering dust somewhere in the files of SAVAK, the Iranian internal security service, is the wonderful intelligence report of the dancer, because when Tamir landed at Lod Airport, a General Staff officer gave him some surprising news: there had been a coup in Baghdad - General Qassem had been deposed and General Aref was in power.

A little more than a decade later, as head of the IDF's Planning Branch, Tamir headed a team of creative colonels from the paratroops who identified Iraq as the major threat to Israel. Take away the Iraqi expeditionary forces to Syria and Jordan, they said, and the eastern front is no more.

The chief of staff at the time, Mordechai Gur, was hostile to their proposal to create a trained force, consisting largely of reserve paratroopers, which in an emergency could operate in western Iraq and disrupt the movement of armored forces from there to do battle against Israel. Gur argued that he would not be able to justify the death of Israeli troops so far from home. The chief Infantry and Paratroop officer, Dan Shomron, came to Tamir's office and with the Tamir team planned a war game based on an Israeli-Iraqi scenario. In 1991, as chief of staff, albeit in the face of missile launchers and not armored divisions, Shomron was almost called on to put a version of that scenario into practice. One of the senior officers who was supposed to take part in the operation was at the time the commander of the regular Paratroop Brigade was Moshe Ya'alon, now the chief of staff.

This sequence, as though from generation to generation, could end soon if the American goals in Iraq are achieved. There will no longer be an eastern front - another cause of concern for Syria, even though it is assisting Iraq less than appears - and there has for some time not been a western front either, not since the peace treaty with Egypt was signed. The Americans are grateful to Hosni Mubarak, both for allowing their armored reserves to pass through the Suez Canal (if they'd had to go around Africa they would have missed the war) and for the series of "Bright Star" exercises in the western desert in Egypt, where American troops have trained for the past 20 years.

What will remain for Israel? Only the confrontation with the Palestinians, and even there Ariel Sharon is striving for peace, even though he seems to be revolving around one point without making progress. It's not his fault, though: he is really rowing with all his might, though he only has one oar - which looks suspiciously like a rifle.