It's a little over a year since the US invaded Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts: nonexistent WMD, imaginary al-Qaeda connections and the rest. Regime change has been duly carried out, and we are the new regime. "Shock and awe" has been replaced by "blowback," which is a 21st-century way of saying that you reap what you sow -- or, more crudely, that the things one initiates often come back to bite one on the posterior.
Part of the price paid has been the rising death toll among American service personnel in sunny Iraq -- above 700 now and well on the way to 800 as this is written. Efforts to counter the initial drip-drip, hit-and-run guerrilla phase of the year-long resistance have given way to Operation Vigilant Resolve in the Sunni Triangle and Operation Resolute Sword in the Shi'ite south (where do they get these names?), the official American responses to this spring's Iraqi version of the unexpected North Vietnamese Tet offensive of 1968.
As was the case a generation ago in Southeast Asia, overconfident American forces were caught by surprise and abruptly given to understand that the war they thought they had won was far from over. In a classic ploy, the Iraq resistance provoked the US military into an ill-advised attack on Fallujah to avenge the killings of four contract security guards and then sprang a bloody trap; it likewise egged on coalition forces in the southern region to overreact to the provocations of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which they did, creating another series of bloody confrontations. Time will tell whether these apparently coordinated Sunni-Shi'ite actions will prove, like Tet, to be the tipping point leading to US withdrawal.
The parallel many are drawing with the Vietnam quagmire is apt, but there is another comparison, more frightening in its long-range implications, that the events of April also made compelling. With each passing day, the US face-off with Iraqi militants is more and more resembling the endless Israeli struggle to put down the Palestinian uprising. The revenge scenario that arose out of the contract-worker killings and mutilations is especially disturbing. If the US military is going to be drawn into a Chicago gangland-style response of tit-for-tat body counts -- when you kill one of ours, we will kill two of yours -- the future is indeed bleak. The Israeli army has been running this sort of vengeful occupation in the West Bank on and off for a generation; it's led nowhere and never will. The way things are similarly shaping up in the American occupation of Iraq, we will soon have two choices: either keep on killing and being killed in ritualistic fashion, constantly upping the ante -- or leave.
As an offshoot of the boneheaded strategy of winning hearts and minds through military attrition, there is the ongoing (but unspoken) issue of civilian war deaths in Iraq. The precise number of Iraqis who have perished since the start of the US incursion is problematical. A recent CBS News report placed it at between 8,000 and 10,000. Other estimates have ranged anywhere from 4,000 to 13,000, with 10,000 (or three times this country's 9/11 fatalities) being the consensus figure. Most were killed when the actual invasion was in progress last year, but the total continues to climb under the occupation.
Americans appear to have no particular qualms about the casual elimination, on an almost daily basis, of the very people we are supposedly striving to free and bring to a better life. There's something unseemly about the moral double standard of anguishing over troop deaths while losing no sleep at all over the luckless civilians caught in the middle. American forces certainly aren't allowing "collateral damage" to inhibit their activities, any more than the opposing insurgents are. This counterproductive tactic highlights the question of why we're really there; it's clearly not for the benefit and well-being of the Iraqi people.
Despite the "fog of war," a few things have become increasingly obvious in the past year. First of all, such abstractions as freedom and democracy have very little to do with the reason we're in Iraq. Washington has a long history of tolerating tyrants who suppress and abuse their people, including Saddam Hussein himself prior to 1991. Revelations over recent months have also made it abundantly clear that Saddam's Iraq was never any military threat to this country.
The Bush administration's war was a purely elective one undertaken for purposes other than those stated. Foremost among them were the rationales quietly set forth over several years' time by the now-infamous neoconservative intellectuals (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and others), whose theories came to permeate Washington's corridors of power under such sympathetic enablers as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Their essential argument: America required an ideological foothold in the Middle East, a country we could occupy, shape, use as a base of military operations and establish as both a bulwark against Islamic extremism and a showcase for our cultural values. Iraq was chosen for this hegemonic role because it was strategically located, easy to portray as a threat and in sync with established presidential biases.
To implement the Iraq project, the American people had to be sold on the enterprise, and they were. Saddam's regime, bad to begin with, was demonized as the greatest danger since the fall of communism. Once the sale was consummated, Americans clung to it -- and they still do. To conclude the administration was wrong would require the majority who (polls say) continue to support the basic rightness of the invasion to admit that they, too, were wrong and that the dead, once more, died for nothing. Such an admission runs counter to human nature; it took a painful decade to acknowledge public error in the case of Vietnam.
So here we sit, occupiers and not liberators, a year into the splendid neocon mission to remake the Arab world and vanquish the Islamic terrorism to which prewar Iraq had no connection (but to which postwar Iraq has become a magnet). Americans have to ask themselves if they feel safer and more secure as a result. If not, they need to inform the incompetents who got us into this mess, in no uncertain terms, that it's time for them to go and take their grandiose and vainglorious strategic vision with them.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.