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A couple of weeks ago Jay Leno did a gag about how the Japanese had offered to send troops to help out in Iraq. "Great timing," he said, the message being that the Japanese had come on board when the war was over. Chris Matthews, on MSNBC's Hardball, expressed great surprise that people are still killing each other in Iraq. One got the impression he thought that the administration had misled him, that once Saddam's statue was down, it should be clear sailing from then on.

What universe do these people live in?

To me the surprise is that we've faced so little opposition, not so much. In the universe I live in, when you put in an invasion you get a resistance movement. World War II saw them arise in France, Russia, Yugoslavia, China, the Philippines -- everywhere the axis powers invaded. Ho Chi Minh began as an anti-Japanese guerrilla and switched to being an anti-French guerrilla as soon as the French came back; then an anti-American guerrilla when we replaced the French.

I shouldn't be dismayed that reasonably intelligent people expected the war in Iraq would be over when the invasion was over. We were surprised when Ho took on the French, too.

Remember when the Clinton administration announced that we would bring the troops home from Bosnia after one year? I laughed out loud. It was like telling a group of high school graduates they would start college in September and pick up their degrees just before Christmas break. Some things take time. Re-creating a society takes at least a generation, usually closer to two.

In 1963 I was getting ready to go to Vietnam for the first time. I met a Special Forces sergeant who said flatly that it would take 35 years to accomplish what we had set out to do in Vietnam. He didn't say why, and I didn't learn why until I went there.

I saw, we all saw, and nobody in Washington saw, that it takes at least a generation to re-create a society. Nobody ever really changes their mind about anything. Once their basic attitudes about life and how it is lived are formed, they are pretty much set. To make competent generals you have to train them as lieutenants and keep at it through all their promotions until you have good senior leaders. We did exactly half of that job in Vietnam, threw up our hands, and sold out the competent lieutenant colonels we had made.

Iraq has been under a fascist dictatorship for three decades. Self-reliance, initiative, personal responsibility -- these things have all been beaten out of them. They won't come back by issuing a proclamation or waving a magic wand. They will come back through patience, kindness, and setting a decent example.

Americans tend to think in the near term. Government doesn't think past next year's budget. Big business is even worse. It doesn't think past the next quarterly profit-and-loss statement. We insist on the quick fix, instant gratification, shake 'n' bake. We don't want to build it to last; we just don't want it to fall apart on our watch. We get played for suckers by cultures that plan a couple of centuries down the road.

If we're out of Iraq in two years, it will be either another fascist dictatorship or an Islamic "republic" in ten. Hell, Saddam Hussein could still come back. How humiliating would that be? We would be the world's sole remaining superdickhead.

One of the greatest mistakes we could make would be to blow into Iraq and think we, the great Americans, are going to show the simple natives how it's really done. The resolution of every war is a process of cross-culturization. We're going to learn at least as much from the Iraqis as we teach them, like it or not. We didn't drive Toyotas, eat pizza, learn karate, or have Army uniforms that resemble those of Nazi postal clerks before WWII. We didn't practice tai kwon do before Korea. We didn't have a burgeoning culture of Asian scholars and entrepreneurs before Vietnam.

There will be Iraqi war brides. Much that is worthwhile about Iraqi culture and Arab culture will become part of American culture.

I don't pretend to be an expert on that culture, but my favorite poet is Jalaluddin Rumi, a 12th-century Sufi poet, born in Afghanistan, raised in Persia. I'm writing this from my sister's farm in Cabool, Missouri, so I don't have the poems here to quote from directly, but I remember some of those great lines. "I am the sweet water, and the jar that pours." "Come to the garden in spring. There will be light and lovers, grapes and pomegranates. If you come, these do not matter. If you do not come, these do not matter."

Probably doesn't sound much like what you expect from Iran. Sufism predated Islam. When Islam came to conquer, the Sufis simply absorbed it and went on. The fundamentalists hate them for their mysticism and their sensuality and, more than anything, for their tolerance.

But it was not the fundamentalists who kicked British ass at Omdurman; it was the whirling dervishes, the Sufis. There is a great clash of cultures happening here, and if Islam survives (and it will), it will be because it absorbs what we have to teach and goes on. And if Western Civ survives (and we will), it will be because we have absorbed what the Near East has to teach us.

We have invaded the cradle of civilization, and one of the main things it has to teach, it seems to me, is that before human civilization, it wasn't a desert. Remember when Carl Reiner used to interview Mel Brooks as the 2000-year-old man? One of their gags was, "That happened in the Sahara Forest."

"You mean the Sahara Desert?"

"Sure, now."

I was amazed when I learned it was true. When someone challenges you on protecting the environment, ask them how they'd like to live in the Sahara. We're turning the Earth into Dune.

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