America is stuck on three war paradigms. There is WWII, the Good War; Viet Nam, the bad war (also known as the quagmire); and the Gulf War, the quick war. Korea lives up to its reputation as the Forgotten War.
Obviously the Global War on Terror (now the war on Islamo-Fascists) is not a quick war.
Conservatives would like to think of the GWOT as being like WWII. It has a Day of Infamy and some opponents who are clearly evil by our standards. It also featured notable patriotism and a uniting of politicians against a common foe. Liberals are attracted to the WWII idea also but for different reasons. They like to point out that five years into WWII we were clearly winning. They also like to point out the shared sacrifice made during WWII as justification for rolling back tax cuts and jacking up oil taxes.
As seductive as the WWII model is, it doesn't match up. Even if you lump all of the Axis of Evil together they do not match the military power of WWII's Axis. Saddam was the only member to try expanding and that was turned back a decade and a half ago. As for shared sacrifice, that was needed because the entire country was on a war footing. People went without meat and gasoline because it was needed at the front lines. We have no such shortages now.
Viet Nam only works when looking at Iraq, not at the GWOT as a whole. Even Iraq fits the mould poorly. In Viet Nam we were fighting an actual country which in turn was the client state of a world power. In Iraq we are fighting an insurgency fueled by the deposed minority and foreign fighters. With Viet Nam, opponents could honestly say that they believed that being conquered by the VC would be preferable to continued war. In Iraq, everyone agrees that the country will erupt into a violent civil war if we leave too soon.
Then there is the body count. Fewer than 3,000 US soldiers have been killed in five years of fighting the GWOT. Casualty rates in WWII and Viet Nam were much higher.
So how should we look at the GWOT? I think it should be regarded as Cold War II. Consider the similarities.
In the Cold War we were not just opposing the USSR, we were opposing communism. This was a movement which combined economic policy, politics (generally dictatorships), and religion (generally outlawed or forced underground). There were several different movements. Some controlled countries, some were citizens of free countries agitating for change. Not all of these groups tolerated each other.
In the GWOT we are fighting a religious movement which includes economic policy, politics (theocracy), and religion. There are different movements. Some of them hate each other.
There is also the nuclear issue. The Cold War was a proxy war because each side was armed with weapons too destructive to use. In a few years we can expect to see Iran and North Korea similarly armed. They are also testing delivery systems. So far they are way behind where the Russians were in the 1950s but they are working to catch up.
Other similarities - the Cold War dragged on for decades. There was a strong feeling on the Left that we could simply stand down and the other side would respect that and disarm as well. They hated with a passion leaders who stood up to communism.
Some people in the military have recognized the parallels. They refer to this as the Long War.
This conflict is not about Iraq or Osama bin Lauden. It is the secular West vs militant Islam. At the end we will either see Islam brought into the 21st century or we will see Sharia as the law of the land across most of the world.