Was it worth it, of course, is only one of the questions. What were the alternatives? What could have been done differently? Are things getting better or worse? And however we got here, what do we do now?
As the Iraq war's third anniversary approached, the news fed both doubts and hopes. Saddam Hussein took the stand in his trial for the first time, reminding people of what they were missing. Meanwhile, the brand-new Iraqi parliament met in a capital under curfew to pull together some kind of future amid warnings of civil war. U.S. forces launched Operation Swarmer, the biggest air assault since the invasion, to root out insurgents north of Baghdad. President Bush embraced realism: "We will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come," he warned as he argued why that was a price worth paying.
This war has brought division from the start, not just among but also within us. In between those who were always against the war and those who are still for it lie the shifting ambivalents who want this whole massive gamble to work but increasingly fear that it won't. Among the more ardent critics these days are pundits and policymakers who favored the strategy three years ago, even helped shape it, and are now doing a kind of public penance for their failure of foresight. Defense hawk Richard Perle, for example, has declared that the U.S. got the war right and the postwar wrong.
There has been a pattern for modern American wars going back to Korea: broad public support at the outset, growing concern as casualties rise or progress stalls and then a new resolutioneither do what it takes to win or get us out. In Vietnam, nine years passed after the first U.S. servicemen were killed and more than 20,000 others died before a majority of Americans concluded we were on the wrong course. Opinion swung more quickly this time, as the cost-benefit analysis changed. When the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) weren't found and the Saddam-9/11 connection was discredited, the sense of urgent threat receded. However generous and idealistic Americans may be, a half-a-trillion-dollar nation-building venture is a harder case to make.
So support for the war thickens and thins as events unfold. While polls showed that 68% of Americans were in favor of the invasion three years ago, that figure fell as what looked like a quick victory stalled, rose when Saddam was pulled from his spider hole, sank with the sickening pictures from Abu Ghraib, but then rose a bit again as Iraqis defied threats and went to the polls, setting an example for a region where free elections are about as common as leprechauns. In recent weeks the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine, the bodies dumped in shallow graves, the girls blown up on the way to school, the dwindling faith not in U.S. abilities and intentions but in Iraq'sall drove down support for the war again.
So was it worth it? In a Gallup poll last week, 60% of those surveyed said no. In the pages that follow, a diverse and international group of thinkers give their opinions. Many people approached by TIME refused to answer. Perhaps they share the view expressed last week in Sydney by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "I think the outcome, the judgment, of all of this needs to await history."