The decisive turning point in the West's long struggle against Islamic conquerors came on the afternoon of Sept. 12, 1683, during the last Turkish siege of Vienna. Severely outnumbered Polish hussars - the finest cavalry Europe ever produced - charged into the massed Ottoman ranks with lowered lances and a wild battle cry.
Led by the valiant King Jan Sobieski, the Poles had marched to save Vienna while other Europeans looked away. The French - surprise! - had cut a deal with the sultan. (To Louis XIV, humbling the rival Habsburgs trumped the fate of Western civilization.)
The odds were grim. Many of King Jan's nobles feared disaster. But Sobieski risked his kingdom - actually a rough-and-tumble democracy - to save a continent.
On that fateful afternoon, the Polish cavalry struck the Turkish lines with such force that 2,000 lances shattered. The charge stunned the Ottoman army. A hundred thousand Turks ran for the Danube.
No army from the Islamic world ever posed such a threat to the West again.
Poland's thanks for its courage? In the next century, the country was sliced up like a pie by the ungrateful Habsburgs, along with the Romanovs of Russia and the Prussian Hohenzollerns. It was the most cynical action in European history until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided Poland again in 1939.
But the Poles never gave up their belief in their country - or in freedom. During our own revolution, our first allies were Polish freedom fighters such as Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciusko. (Paris only joined the fight when it looked like we might win. And France intervened to spite Britain, not to help us.)
Throughout the 19th century, Poles fought for freedom wherever the struggle raged, in Latin America, Greece and Italy, and on the Union side in our Civil War. Although their country had been raped by the great powers of Europe, Poles kept her cause alive.
Again and again, Poles rose against their occupiers, only to be savagely put down, with their finest young men slaughtered or marched to Siberian prisons. Then, at the end of the Great War, Poland suddenly reappeared on the maps.
What did the Poles do? They immediately saved Western civilization yet again. In the now-forgotten "Miracle on the Vistula," a patched-together Polish army turned back the Red hordes headed for Berlin. One of history's most brilliant campaigns, it saved defeated Germany from a communist takeover.
Poland's thanks? The slaughter of World War II. Then the Soviet occupation.
But the Poles never gave up. Their language, their faith - and their martial traditions - were maintained with rigor and pride. Of all the countries that gained their freedom as the Soviet Union collapsed, none had struggled for liberty as relentlessly as Poland.
Now the Poles are defending freedom again. In Iraq. While the establishment media agonize over the fickle moods of Paris and Berlin, there's little mention in the press of the superb contribution made by our Polish allies - at great cost to their own country.
In the words of an American officer who works closely with them, "Poland has taken to the Iraq mission for idealistic and principled purposes: Its leadership and military truly believe that freedom and justice are universal values worth fighting for."
To how many other nations would those words apply?
Poland has deployed 2,500 of its best soldiers to Iraq. It sent $64 million worth of its newest equipment - which operations in Iraq will ruin. Warsaw selected its finest officers to command and staff the Multinational Division Center South. A Polish major general commands a total of 12,000 troops from 22 nations with responsibility for a sector previously held by twice as many U.S. Marines. The Polish performance has been flawless.
Their reward? Surely America must recognize such a great contribution from an economically struggling ally - at a time when Polish troops also support peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans?
Sorry. Turkey, which stabbed us as deeply in the back as it could on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, will receive a minimum of $2 billion from Washington - and the same elements in the Rumsfeld cabal who failed to plan for the occupation of Iraq hope to increase our aid to Ankara to $5 billion.
Pakistan, which refuses to press home the fight against al Qaeda, will get billions from Washington. The repressive Egyptian regime will get a few billion, too, as it does every year. Even Yemen will get a welfare check from Uncle Sugar.
And Poland? Like the Czech Republic, which sent a few medics to the Persian Gulf then withdrew them in panic, Poland will get a standard package of $12 million for NATO-related programs. Other than some logistical support in Iraq, that's it. Strategic peanuts for our most enthusiastic ally on the European continent.
Poland did have one request - a humble one, in the great scheme of things. Warsaw asked for $47 million to modernize six used, American-built C-130 transport aircraft and to purchase American-built HMMWV all-terrain vehicles so elite Polish units could better integrate operations with American forces. Much of the money would go right back to U.S. factories and workers.
Our response? We stiffed them.
For once, the Pentagon and the State Department agree: No can do. Impossible. Our pocket are empty. Got to FedEx every penny to our favorite dictators.
It's a mistake to over-idealize any nation. But if there's a land of heroes anywhere between the English Channel and the coast of California, it's Poland. Our Polish allies have taken a brave, costly, principled stand for freedom and democracy in Iraq. They desperately want to be seen by Washington as reliable friends in this treacherous world.
The least we could do is to treat them with respect.