"I miss my family, my friends and my country," writes Major Glen G. Butler in The New York Times. "But right now there is no place I'd rather be. I am a United States marine."

Writing between combat missions in Iraq, Major Butler says he is fighting now to prevent a greater threat in the future. Iraq is where America must prove itself and set an example for the region. But success depends on public support. Critics, he writes, "don't have to believe in the cause as I do, but they should not denigrate it. That only aids the enemy in defeating us strategically."

Critics, however, are growing in number, and some urge immediate withdrawal as a patriotic act. "We have already failed in Iraq," says General William Odum, former director of the National Security Agency. "The issue is how high a price we are going to pay, less by getting out sooner or more by getting out later."

William Lind, author of numerous books on military affairs, has a similar warning:

"The longer we stay, the worse the situation will get. Basic errors that we made at the beginning of the Iraq war and indeed before the beginning of the war have essentially made it impossible for us to bring order, much less dreams like freedom, democracy and free enterprise to Iraq. The time has come simply to get out."

Occupying Iraq breeds more terrorism, says Thomas Gale Moore, a senior member of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University:

"We have alienated not only the Muslims but most of the world with this war in Iraq, and as long as we continue to stay there, it is like sticking a finger in somebody's eye or rubbing a wound. Our occupation is actually a recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden."

Iraq is no more, asserts Mr. Lind, only a collection of non-state elements filling in where the state used to be. At odds with one another, they will not be able to unite:

"In more and more cases, when you attack a state, you end up not merely overthrowing the regime; you destroy the state itself. And that is what we did when we invaded Iraq. We destroyed the state, and neither we nor Iraqis can recreate it."

But what happens to Iraq if we do pull out? asks Lawrence Korb, a senior member of the Center for American Progress and a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense:

"The chances are Iraq would erupt into a civil war and destabilize the whole region. The Iranians and the Turks are likely to get involved. It could spread to Saudi Arabia, and an unstable Middle East is going to play havoc with the international economic system because so much of the world's oil comes from there."

Ralph Peters, a former U.S. army intelligence officer and author of numerous books on warfare, says the stakes are too high for the United States to cut and run. The Middle East is broken, and we can help fix it by rebuilding Iraq: "We just have to stay the course. The world has to see that America does not quit. We sent the wrong signal by pulling out of Somalia after we won the battle of Mogadishu. Now we have to reestablish our credibility in the eyes of the world and prove that just because things start getting a little rough, Americans do not run away."

Andy Messing, executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation and a former U.S. special forces officer, was recently in Baghdad, one of 27 conflicts he has witnessed. He is convinced Iraq is making progress, even if the media dispute it:

"I think civilian reconstruction is the key. We have the might to quell the turmoil, but we have to be very vigorous in our reconstruction efforts. From what I saw, people are working very long hours seven days a week to try to accomplish this. They are starting to get some traction, and it will be better in the next six months. It is just a matter of having patience."

How much patience? asks Mr. Korb. He thinks the American public is beginning to tire of the war, as surveys would indicate. Iraq must be stabilized, he says, before serious opposition builds:

"The first thing is to make sure the elections take place on time, which means that you have to get the security situation under control so that people will feel free to vote. And if the elections go well, then you will have a government that will have more legitimacy than the interim government that was set up by the United States and the United Nations."

Turn over control to the United Nations as fast as possible, says Mr. Korb, and install a head of mission similar to the one in Kosovo. Iraq must become an international concern, not just an American. Above all, he says, inject more realism into an enterprise that has too often lacked it.