The U.S. military “victory” in Falluja is unlikely to change the dismal course of the guerilla war in Iraq. Military history has repeatedly shown why the cliché “winning the battle and losing the war” has crept into popular culture. Moreover, winning back Falluja the way the U.S. did is likely to be a sure prescription for military defeat in the wider Iraq war.

To be fair, blunders by the Bush administration politicos have put the U.S. armed forces in an untenable position. Especially after the aborted U.S. offensive on Falluja in April, continuing to allow the Iraqi insurgents a safe haven to attack the U.S. military and Iraqi security services would make U.S. forces seem weak. Alternatively, taking the town block-by-block with more lightly armed U.S. forces—sans the heavy firepower of artillery, armored vehicles, flying gunships, and jet aircraft—would have eliminated the Falluja safe haven without destroying the town, but with much heavier U.S. casualties. (The British allies, with years of experience fighting urban guerillas in Northern Ireland, have been urging the United States to take such a more restrained approach). But because a plurality of the American public has now soured on this war of choice rather than necessity, such U.S. carnage would undermine support for continuation of the Iraq conflict. U.S. policymakers remember that in two other wars of choice—Lebanon in the early 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s—U.S. public opinion evaporated for continuation of military operations after only a small number of casualties.

As a result, the Bush administration allowed the U.S. military to retake Falluja in its preferred way—with the gloves off using massive amounts of offensive firepower. Tactically, the use of such firepower is very effective in winning toe-to-toe battles against both conventional armies and guerrillas. Yet even in more conventional wars, winners of battles do not always win the war. George Washington lost most of the battles of the American Revolution but over time eventually wore down the British public’s tolerance for war in the faraway colonies. Robert E. Lee—revered in the American South to this day for his genius in winning battles using swashbuckling offensive tactics—was a strategic incompetent who lost the war for the Confederacy. Although Lee was triumphant in many tactical engagements, the enormous Confederate casualties caused by his offensive tactics wore down the smaller gray armies faster than their larger blue Union counterparts. Instead, Lee should have used a “defense in depth” strategy that withdrew the gray forces into the vast southern lands and avoided a battle of attrition that he could only lose.

In counterinsurgency warfare, winning battles while losing the war is even more common. The French won the Battle of Algiers but were ultimately worn out by Algerian nationalist guerrillas. In the Vietnam War, the 1968 Tet Offensive—the invasion of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong—resulted in a U.S. military victory and the end of the Viet Cong as an effective fighting force. Yet politically, the strong communist offensive belied the Johnson administration’s assertions that the United States was winning the war and ultimately led to a U.S. defeat, as U.S. public support for the conflict began draining away.

Similarly, destroying Falluja with heavy firepower was a military victory but likely will be a political disaster. Although effective U.S. deception about the direction of the attack on Falluja probably surprised, trapped and killed a significant number of guerrillas, many got away. In this war, the insurgents have shown themselves capable of learning, and they will probably be less prone in the future to slug it out with a more powerful enemy. Most guerrilla movements have to learn this the hard way—for example, the communists had to do so in Vietnam.

Politically, Falluja came to symbolize Iraqi national resistance to a foreign occupier (notwithstanding the administration’s propaganda that the insurgents consist only of foreign terrorists and former Saddam loyalists). Even a leaked report by the intelligence officers of a Marine unit fighting in Falluja admitted that leveling the city with heavy firepower would probably act as a rallying cry for resistance among Iraqis—much as the loss of the Alamo did for Texans in fighting the Mexicans in the 1830s. After U.S. forces have devastated Falluja, the idea that paltry and delayed U.S. assistance for reconstruction will win Fallujan “hearts and minds” is ludicrous.

Moreover, the insurgency seems to have coordinated attacks in other Iraqi cities—for example, Mosul—to demonstrate that the loss of Falluja means little to the larger insurgency. The guerillas realize something that the Bush administration can’t seem to grasp: The real battle for “hearts and minds” is being fought not only in Falluja, Mosul, Samarra, and Baghdad, but in Fargo, Mobile, Seattle, and Baltimore. And public opinion polls show that the administration seems to be losing the political battle in both Iraq and at home. If the guerillas are not decisively defeated, they’ll win by waiting until the U.S. public is tired of the pointless carnage and demands that U.S. forces withdraw from the Iraqi war zone.

Unfortunately, Iraq is then likely to descend into chaos and civil war. So despite Bush administration boasting of killing 1,200 guerrillas in Falluja, the future of Iraq looks grim indeed.