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The Page That Refuses to Turn

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....”

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Julian Assange and his obnoxious Wiki-leakers just don’t get it: As far as Americans are concerned, the Iraq war is over, done, finished. We’ve turned the page, changed the channel, tied up the odd loose end, inserted the last punctuation mark, and moved on. And not a minute too soon: With Bush’s War barely ended, Obama’s War demands our undivided attention.

Assange is deluding himself if he thinks his dump of various and sundry classified documents relating to the war is going to distract us. He obviously hasn’t gotten the word: Now that Saddam Hussein’s no longer around, the world is an infinitely better place. ‘Nuf said.

Whether Iraq itself is a better place now that more than 100,000 Iraqis are no longer around—all of them killed in the mayhem unleashed by the U.S. invasion—is not a question that Americans are prepared to entertain. As to whether America itself is a better place given the loss of some 4,287 American war dead along with the physical and psychological suffering sustained by thousands of other soldiers and their families, not to mention the expenditure of at least a trillion dollars—well, let’s not go there.

Assange’s great offense is not to unearth deep dark secrets. The documents themselves have produced remarkably few genuine revelations. Rather his offense is that he is subverting the careful effort, already well-advanced, to construct a neat and satisfying narrative of the Iraq war, thereby enabling Americans to consign the entire episode definitively into the past.

Irresponsible contractor-mercenaries shooting confused but unarmed Iraqi civilians have no place in that narrative—as least, they’re not supposed to. Neither do similar episodes involving panicky and trigger-happy American troops. Ditto for evidence of the routine abuse of detainees in Iraqi prisons. Petraeus’s surge not the great victory it was cracked up to be? Unresolved sectarian and ethnic tensions? Indications that Iran is emerging as a principal beneficiary of prolonged U.S. exertions in Iraq? Don’t want to hear about it.

War is never a pretty thing, and the Iraq war ranks as a notably unpretty specimen, the more so the closer you examine it. To redeem the war requires that Americans peer none too closely at all that U.S. efforts have wrought in Iraq. Our general inclination, one encouraged by Republicans and Democrats alike, is to attend instead to Conrad’s “idea”—that which makes even the ugliest thing palatable.

What Americans set up and bow down before is a particular image of America itself. Central to that image is a belief in our own innocence and singularity—our chosenness. Sacrifices endured in the course of sustaining that image—sacrifices seldom touching families living in or near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, needless to say—are said to represent the cost of Freedom and to advance the cause of Freedom. And if mistakes occur along the way, well, that too forms part of Freedom’s cost.

Assange isn’t ready to write off the Iraq war as simply an instance of good intentions gone awry. He’s not ready to forgive. Although he’s unquestionably an arrogant jerk, on one point he’s absolutely right: With regard to Iraq, there’s a great accounting yet to be done. If Americans had a lick of sense, they would demand that accounting. Forgiveness and forgetting can wait.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.