The Magazine

It's America's War

From the May 24, 2004 issue: But too many Democrats think it's Bush's war.

May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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The moment we saw those pictures we knew (every last American knew) that the punch in the gut is on the way. People who never cared a damn what Saddam did to his prisoners would be choking back tears of outrage. Americans hold themselves to a higher moral standard, of course. But most Americans suspected that the world's reaction had as much to do with America Hatred as it did with moral standards. We knew that people would forget what we have achieved in Iraq, and what it has cost us in arms and legs and eyes and blood. We knew our enemies would light into America and do their best to turn the world against us and against our troops--whom we had seen risking their lives to liberate Iraq and make it safe--not to mention the civilians who hazarded life and limb to get clean water flowing, oil pumping, power on, schools open, streets policed, the economy inching forward, and democracy coming steadily closer. We could all anticipate headlines like the one that appeared in the May 8 Irish Times: "The shaming of America. George Bush's boast of shutting down Saddam Hussein's torture chambers in Iraq rings hollow now." We knew our enemies would use those photos to smear our whole Army, our whole Iraq campaign, our whole nation. Much of the world (after all) operates on America Hate the way a car runs on gas or a tick on blood.

"The shaming of America. George Bush's boast of shutting down Saddam Hussein's torture chambers in Iraq rings hollow now." The hell it does. Anyone who equates Saddam's bloody decades of torture and mass murder to the crimes at Abu Ghraib is the same kind of fool who once preached the moral equivalence of America and Soviet Russia, or of America in Vietnam and Hitlerism. Imbecility is eternal, perpetually reincarnated.

And it's hardly irrelevant that the Army did discover and announce the crimes itself. No one had to order any generals to investigate and prosecute the criminals. That was already happening. No cover-up; no chance of the criminals escaping. The military's record in recent years suggests that the opposite danger is more acute: Innocent soldiers might be punished because of a runaway public relations steamroller. Remember Tailhook and the naval careers it destroyed to make ideologues happy?

Think back to 9/11--America was in trouble; possibly official malfeasance was a factor, no one knew; but we did know that it was the duty of every U.S. public leader to speak for America, right away. (As someone shouted during the parliamentary hour-of-crisis debate that led to Churchill's promotion to the premiership: Speak for England!) And U.S. public leaders, Republican and Democrat, did speak for America. The country was proud to see Gephardt and Daschle roaming around with Lott and Hastert. The Democrats had lost the White House, but rose to the occasion. The world noticed; the nation was grateful.

When Abu Ghraib broke, America was in trouble again. Once again she needed all her government officials to do their duty, all public persons to stand up and defend her. But last week was no 9/11. The Democrats did not rise. They sunk. No one blamed them for condemning the criminals and demanding investigations. But we needed to hear more, and we didn't. Senator Tom Daschle said, "I think that is inexcusable. It's an outrage. It's wrong." And Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said, "We must have a full investigation to get to the bottom of this outrage." And Senator Carl Levin said, "The actions of these individuals have jeopardized members of the Armed Services in the conduct of their mission, and have jeopardized the security of this country." Which was all true. But it was not enough. And there was worse. Ted Kennedy, echoing America Hatred at its ugliest, said that "Saddam's torture chambers have reopened under new management, U.S. management." The world noticed; the nation was quietly heartbroken.

Republican smugness is not in order. It is a moment for Republicans to ask themselves: Have we ever, at any moment in recent decades, let the nation down like this?

I don't think so. But if somebody knows differently, tell me. (No crackpots, please.) This is not a time for party preening. It is one of the sadder moments in American history.

But as Anthony Eden reminds us: "Some day the war will be won."