AUSTIN, Texas -- One reason despair is not an option is because things can always get worse, and then what'll we do? I was actually trying to figure that out when I came across a remarkable article written for the The Nation magazine (known for its liberalism for 141 years) by Richard J. Whalen -- a conservative in good standing, a former Nixon staffer. Whalen has undertaken the singularly valuable task of talking to dissenting generals about the war in Iraq.

            I suppose one could argue, and I am sure someone will, that these are mostly retired generals. Some, like Lt. Gen. William Odom, are calling Iraq "the worst strategic mistake in the history of the United States." And they are retired precisely because of their opposition to Iraq.

            "The only question is whether a war serves the national interest," one retired three-star told Whalen. "Iraq does not."

            Whalen writes: "The dissenting retired generals are bent on making Iraq this nation's last strategically failed war -- that is, one doggedly waged by civilian officials largely to avoid personal accountability for their bad decisions. A failed war causes mounting human and other costs, damaging or entirely destroying the national interest it was supposed to serve."

            During Vietnam, senior soldiers kept quiet. But after it ended, officers, including Colin Powell, "vowed it would never happen again." But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the other civilians in charge overruled the military minds and ignored the possible consequences.

            Some of Whalen's and the generals' clearest points come from breaking the silent ban against comparing Iraq to the Vietnam War. Don't know if you noticed this, but from the beginning anyone who spoke right up and said, "This is just like Vietnam," had the experience of right-wingers landing on them, screeching: "This is not like Vietnam. This Is Not Like Vietnam. THIS IS NOT LIKE VIETNAM." Of course it is. We just haven't wasted 57,000 American lives yet.

            Odom tells Whalen that "our objectives in Vietnam passed through three phases to defeat. These were (1) 1961-65, 'containing' China; (2) 1965-68, obsession with U.S. tactics, leading to 'Americanization' of the war and (3) 1968-75, phony diplomacy and self-deluding 'Vietnamization.' Iraq has now completed two similar phases and is entering the third."

            In late September, it was reported that the National Intelligence Estimate for April said the war in Iraq is creating more terrorists: "A large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists ... are increasing in both number and in geographic distribution. If this trend continues, threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide."

            The administration has released three pages of the 30-page report. We may see the rest of it, but not until after the election.

            It's difficult to argue this war with people who look straight at you and say: "Stay the course. Don't cut and run." We can't even get reasonable discourse on the report, the work of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and signed by Bush's man, John Negroponte.

            Meanwhile, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health now estimates about 655,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in this war. All the work in the study fell to a knee-jerk response from conservatives, "Oh, that can't be right." Yet the methodology employed is the same as is used by the federal government to decide how to spend millions of dollars every year. It is, as they say, the industry standard.

            Speaking of money, though 'tis a pittance compared to lives, we are also wasting billions, as the new "showcase" Iraq police academy demonstrates. It seems we are trying to create a police force in Iraq loyal to the state by housing them in a place with water and feces running down the walls. Further, we're going to have to spend millions and millions to investigate how we frittered away billions and billions.

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