One hundred forty years ago, Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac lay in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia. A few yards away lay Southern trenches, housing Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee's army hardly deserved the name. At Gettysburg, Lee had nearly as many men as Meade. But in the summer of 1864, his force was a mere shadow of the mighty throng that had marched into Pennsylvania a year before. All summer, Grant had brutally hammered at Lee time and again as the two armies lumbered southward to Petersburg. Air power didn't exist, and artillery was much less powerful then than now, so the hammering was mostly done by infantry. Both sides lost massive numbers of men -- losses greater than America's in Iraq could happen in a couple of hours on one end of the line. But Grant could replace his losses; as Abraham Lincoln later said: "The national resources are unexhausted and, as we believe, inexhaustible." Lee had no such resources; the South's well had run dry. And Southern soldiers, knowing the end was coming soon, were starting to desert, to head for home and try to salvage what life they could.
Outside Atlanta, Sherman and Joe Johnston, later John Bell Hood, maneuvered for advantage. But Sherman's army was at once bigger and more mobile -- as it soon proved in its march through South Carolina's swamps. Also better armed, and vastly better supplied.
In Petersburg and in Georgia, there was only one possible outcome of a fight, whenever the fight came. The South was finished. The North had won.
Unless the North decided it had had enough. Lincoln was right about the country's resources -- they really were inexhaustible. But Northern patience could be exhausted. It nearly was: a few months before Lincoln faced the voters in November 1864, he famously wrote his cabinet a letter to be opened after the election, instructing them to work with soon-to-be President McClellan to save the Union before McClellan would take office in March 1865. Lincoln was sure he was going to lose, and feared that McClellan's success at the polls would mean Northern surrender on the battlefield. Lincoln's fear was Robert E. Lee's hope.
It seems impossible to us now: How could Northern voters even think of walking away when victory was certain? Grant had Lee in his grasp; there would be no more Chancellorsvilles or Fredericksburgs, no more magic flanking movements that rolled up whole corps. Sherman's army could move at will through the heart of the Confederacy, eating its fill from the South's farms and burning what was left. Surely the North wouldn't tell Sherman to turn around and march back to Ohio, or tell Grant to leave Lee's dwindling forces in peace. Not when victory was so close.
But it was possible, and for a very simple reason: Northern voters did not understand how close the victory was. When Atlanta fell that September, they began to see the true situation; Lincoln's election was then secure. But Atlanta had not changed the strategic situation one whit: the South was beaten well before the city fell. Instead, Atlanta changed the political situation; it gave the Northern electorate a clearer, more accurate picture of the war's status and likely outcome.
George W. Bush is no Abraham Lincoln, and Iraq is not at all like the Petersburg trenches. But there are some important similarities. The American public is very poorly informed about the current military situation. We read of the daily bombings and hear about the endless quagmire. But we don't read about the number of insurgents killed or captured, the number who remain, or the quality of their supplies and morale. Years from now when this war is chronicled, the past several months may look a little like Grant's campaign against Lee in the summer of 1864, albeit without Grant's casualty list. A steadily larger portion of Iraq has come under the control of the Iraqi government and the American forces that stand behind it. Insurgents have been pushed back into a few isolated pockets. Their political support, never high, seems to have vanished. It may well be that, if the President wins reelection, the insurgency will crumble as quickly as Confederate resistance crumbled once Lincoln won a second term. Certainly there is no reason to believe that the insurgents could prevail if Americans are determined to defeat them. There is very good reason to believe the opposite.
Nevertheless, we could yet lose in Iraq -- by our own choice, not by any skill or power the enemy can bring to bear. Iraqi insurgents have nothing like the popular base of support the Viet Cong had (and the Viet Cong were a good deal less popular than many Americans in the late 1960s imagined), nor do they have an established state like North Vietnam to support them. Their only hope is an American pullout. The only way that pullout can happen is if American voters decide that victory isn't worth it.
The surest sign that success is near at hand is the Osama bin Laden videotape released last week. The bin Laden in that video is a beaten man, railing at a world that has not gone according to his murderous plans. If American voters have their eyes open, that video will have the same effect Sherman's capture of Atlanta had in 1864: people will see the strategic situation for what it is, and vote accordingly.
It may not happen. Over the course of the last eighteen months, George W. Bush has done a terrible job of explaining the war in Iraq -- of spelling out the strategic choices, the relevant risks, and the consequences of victory or defeat. That failing may cost him the election. I sincerely hope it does not cost all of us a success on the battlefield that our forces have earned.
William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School.