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Washington Diarist: The Troops and Us

Last month, at a grubby Italian restaurant near a military base in North Carolina, I had dinner with a senior Army officer I had met in Iraq. We drank, talked about the war, and, on the television above the bar, we watched the fall of Washington. The dueling commentators on the TV screen were saying that theupcoming elections would doom the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. They were sure of themselves: This was unquestionably a Tet moment. Or was it Waterloo? What they were bellowing about was my dinner companion's war--in which he'd presided over entire cities, commanded thousands of soldiers, and, too often, lifted their remains onto helicopters. But he seemed more intrigued by his shrimp scampi. "The place they're talking about," he explained between bites, "I don't even recognize it."

I knew what would come next, and it did: his charge that the press purposefully discounts the good news from Iraq. We argued the point, my impression being that, rather than bad news, a typical day relays hardly any news at all. Between segments about blood-pressure pills, the network newscasts offer brisk and requisite mention of the day's war dead. But the minutes they devote to the war each month amount to roughly half the coverage broadcast during Vietnam. Meanwhile, despite having generated essential and vivid war reporting, newspapers have been quietly scaling back or shuttering their Baghdad bureaus. The number of embedded journalists covering military operations in Iraq has declined from over 700 in 2003 to just eleven today. All of which leaves readers to color with their imaginations those boxes in the newspapers that tallythe casualty rolls. Or, worse, to let Frank Rich or Rush Limbaugh or a pisher with a website do the coloring for them.

What if they threw a war and nobody came? Well, they did, and few opinion- makers have. For most, Iraq amounts to little more than a Rorschach test-- Bush's criminal folly or, less commonly these days, a proving ground for American resolve. Iraq is something to be poll-tested, quantified, imagined. If only the Army would deploy this brigade here and that brigade there, a leading purveyor of bullshit recently instructed his readers, despite his acquaintance with neither here nor there. Critics of Lars Von Trier, the Danish filmmaker and self-proclaimed chronicler of America's ills, point out that one of the reasons he gets the United States so wrong may be the fact that he never bothered to visit the place. Well, NewYork Times columnist Bob Herbert, who nearly every week purports to describe some facet of the war, weighed in earlier this year by describing a TV show he watched about Iraq. National Review's John Derbyshire, meanwhile, advertises his incuriosity about the war on which he opines as if it were a virtue. "While perfectly happy to go have a look at Iraq," the columnist assures us, "I am ... under no illusion that I shall be much the wiser for it."

But 7,000 miles doesn't begin to measure the distance between Iraq the abstraction and Iraq the place. The moment one passes through Iraq's looking glass, all the predetermined conclusions, all the political certainties, all the things that Iraq has come to embody in the American imagination--all of them crumble away. They cannot withstand even the smallest details, which by themselves reveal the most telling truths: the difference between the Iraqi side of the Baghdad airport, which decays by the hour, and the American side, which operates with industrial efficiency; the small-arms fire of a few months earlier tapering off in one Iraqi town but picking up in another; the stench of burning trash and rubber that makes the country even smell like a car wreck. Bearded fanatics populate Iraq the abstraction, but Iraq the place consists mostly of terrified women and children. For the sake of American soldiers who know this, who speak with a sense of ownership about their war and see themselves as a progressive force on the Iraqi landscape--and who, according to surveys by the Military Times and the Pew Research Center, hold opinions on the war that run almost exactly counter to those registered at home--be grateful that the machinery of war overwhelms the din from Washington.

The latest contribution to that din comes from a chorus of war supporters who wish to apologize--or, more truthfully, demand an apology--for not getting the war they were promised. Unlike Robert McNamara, this war's apologists can't afford to wait decades to go public. After all, there are campaigns to be run, op-eds to be placed, insights to be vindicated. Is it really necessary to point out that these apologies contain not a hint of genuine remorse and more than a hint of self-serving purpose? Or that a sincere apology would be delivered not in the pages of Vanity Fair, but directly to the ones who have been harmed--the American soldiers and Iraqis? (Not that either much cares whether a pundit thinks they bleed for nothing and, by the way, really feels their pain.) Like President Clinton's serial apologies for every historical wrong committed in America's name, the whole point of the exercise is to move forward. Having said, "Sorry about that," the ranks of the ostentatiously contrite imply, historical blunders need no longer detain us--or them. The problem is, history still detains 150,000 Americans in Iraq.

The observation that American soldiers inhabit a different world from the Iraqis around them has become a numbing cliche, but it is their remove from their own society that ought to unnerve us. Notso much the demographic lottery that plants one 20-year-old in aninfantry platoon and another in a Washington internship--the more striking divide is one of ethos and temperament. In Iraq, the U.S. mission requires sacrifice and killing. At home, the U.S. mission requires easy certainties and narrative simplicity. The dissonance makes it nearly impossible to convey one to the other. None of thisis to endorse the cliche of the American soldier as the custodian of everything decent and virtuous about the United States (an analysis with which the military tends, worrisomely, to concur). But something has to give. And when the two worlds finally do collide--when the soldiers arrive home along with a reckoning for alost war--many things will. The distance between us and them won't be one of those things.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.