We see the world through the stories we tell, and until recently the story most Americans told themselves about the war in Iraq was a simple and dramatic narrative of imminent threat, daring triumph, and heroic liberation—a story neatly embodied in images of a dictator’s toppling statue and a president in full flight gear swaggering across a carrier deck. Those pictures, once so bright and clear, have now faded, giving place to a second, darker story beneath: the story of an unfinished war, undertaken for murky reasons, that has left young Americans ruling indefinitely over people who do not welcome them and who are killing more and more of them each day. As long as Saddam Hussein remains at large, as long as the weapons our leaders said were threatening us are not found, and as long as Iraqis go on killing Americans, this second, darker story may come to blot out and finally to mock the memory of the first.
As the war’s ending and, increasingly, its beginning grow more cloudy, Americans are confronted on their television screens with a violent present that day by day becomes more difficult to comprehend. That the attacks on American soldiers in Iraq “do not pose a strategic threat to the mission,” in the words of the American proconsul L. Paul Bremer, is true but meaningless. The war in Iraq—in the streets of Baghdad no less than in the halls of Congress or in the stump speeches of the campaign trail—is in its essence political, not military. Like the terrorists who hijacked American airliners and flew them into American buildings, the fighters daily ambushing American troops are attacking not American military power but American will. And thanks to the way President Bush and his colleagues chose to build the case for war, and the errors they have made in prosecuting it, American will is an increasingly vulnerable target. In the end defeat or victory in Iraq will be judged not by who controls Baghdad but by whether the war has left Americans more secure than they were before it was undertaken. All the ringing presidential pronouncements of “Mission Accomplished!” will not change the reality: America could still lose this war.
Like the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the attacks in Iraq—ambushes and assassinations of American troops; sabotage of Iraqi oil pipelines, water mains, electrical lines, and other critical infrastructure; suicide bombing of UN headquarters and other “soft” targets—are aimed not at defeating American forces directly but at creating a political spectacle that will impress, frighten, and persuade a number of audiences, among them the Iraqi people, the Arab world, and finally the American public. During a briefing on July 16, General John Abizaid, who succeeded General Tommy Franks as head of Central Command, described the authors of these attacks as
…mid-level Ba’athist, Iraqi intelligence people, Special Security Organization people, Special Republican Guard people that have organized at the regional level in cellular structure and are conducting what I…
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