Just 30 miles from Washington lies the Civil War battlefield of Bull Run, or Manassas, where, in July 1861, a poorly prepared US Army was beaten back by a smaller band of ragtag Confederate rebels. Washington politicians were so sure victory was theirs that many went out to picnic and watch the battle.
Today that battlefield is a reminder that wars seldom go as planned. Yet a quick review gives hope that today, unlike 142 years ago, the US is well prepared for the present fight.
Today's US forces have better weaponry than that used in the first Gulf War. More than 80 percent of today's air-dropped bombs are satellite guided. In 1991, 10 percent were precision-guided. High-powered microwave weapons can take out electrical and computer systems without killing people.
In 1991, the US military was still configured for a war against the Soviet Union. Today's force is lighter, more mobile, while retaining enough heavy armor in case Iraqi tanks counterattack. Lessons from the Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan have been integrated into fighting doctrine.
That said, the war will be no picnic. President Bush was right to state Wednesday night that the fighting "could be longer and more difficult than some predict." Precision bombs sometimes fail.
And while the US and Britain have every reason to keep civilian casualties low, Saddam Hussein has every reason to make them high. Like Slobodan Milosevic, he may commit war crimes and try to blame coalition forces. He has placed military installations next to hospitals, schools, and mosques. Civil disorder could see Iraqis take revenge on those who ruled them cruelly.
Despite careful planning by the US, the unknowns of this war remain high. Americans and the world can only hope for minimal casualties and a quick result, while remembering the lessons of Bull Run.