Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Into the Quagmire We Go

A single death is a tragedy,
a million deaths is a statistic.
--Joseph Stalin

That may well have been the only smart, insightful thing the Soviet dictator ever said. It suggest that he understood both the human mind's inability to embrace abstraction and its related preference for narrative of the particular, a dynamic upon which all literature--and good journalism--is built.

The heartbreaking story on today's Times front page about the Iraqi youth who bled to death after being shot by U.S. troops is full of the gray-area Rashomon murkiness of war, especially a war in which the liberating force has come to seem more like a hostile occupier to the locals. Did the dead kid throw a grenade or didn't he? Did the U.S. military try to get him medical attention, or were the troops too worried about snipers to put that first? And how much did the language barrier play a part?

The skillfully written and well-reported story (interestingly enough authored by John Tierney, a favorite of deposed Times editor Howell Raines, who continues to haunt the Bushies from beyond the career grave) is important not simply for the tragedy of this one family, as tragic as that is, but for what it suggests about the larger quagmire into which the arrogant, ignorant Bush gang has led us. Then, on the editorial page comes the second part of today's one-two punch: Tom Friedman's column. In his signature calm, even-handed way, he describes with some splendid on-the-scene observation and analysis how the U.S. will be forced to not simply rebuild Iraq, but to build the country and the society again, "from scratch." And even if that were possible, how much (remember this cost of war running clock?) might that cost? This Washington Post story suggests that old Iron Pants Rumsfeld has lost all ability to squelch truthful talk by government officials about the real cost of putting back together his mess. Even his handpicked "occupation coordinator" is beginning to divert from the hymn book. The piece contains some interesting new information about 45 countries that have pledge money for the reconstruction. But the lack of detail arouses my suspicions that this might just be of a similar nature to the much-hyped war "coalition" or the White House statistical trickery about tax cuts. Have a few dozen of the world's smallest countries been subtly reminded about their foreign aid allotments enough that they've agreed to pony up $1,000 each for the cause? Stay tuned for that one.

But remember a larger vivid irony that helps give shape and color to this emerging narrative of quagmire (a very Vietnam word, which Colin Powell built his military career around not reliving): the post-war death toll has just now equaled the toll during the official shooting phase of this campaign. That's too juicy a fact for even the dimmest observer to miss. And the American public really isn't that dim, no matter what Karl Rove thinks. Which is why George W. has begun yet the latest leg in his steep drop in the polls. And also why the Dean campaign, more than a year before the election, is taking on the character of a mass protest movement more than a traditional political campaign (I went to an Akron Dean Meet-Up a couple of weeks ago, where more than 50 fervant fans watched a bootlegged CD of his speeches. In one, Dean angrily rasps from behind a lecturn about how the arrogance of the Bush White House has helped mobilize more political volunteers than at any time since 1968, in the midst of anti-Vietnam fervor).

Meanwhile, as the media senses increasing presidential weakness and a public appetite for, or at least acceptance of, stories that depart from the White House line, look for more attention to be focused on some inconvenient loose ends, like the still-missing Osama, who unlike the still-missing Hussein actually did constitute a real threat to the U.S. As always, a British outlet keeps pulling on this thread. The only similarly comprehensive domestic story recently about the missing Osama that I can recall is Jane Mayer's excellent take (unfortunately no longer online) in a late-July issue of the New Yorker, "The Hunt for Osama." It's worth a trip to your nearest library.


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