The wars of our minds end clean, with a last fight, a handshake if the foe is worthy and a tribunal if he is not-Grant and Lee at Appomattox, or the seedy collection of seeming bookies, con men and child molesters who were in fact the Nuremberg defendants. In either case, the work of battle and diplomacy is done, and commentators can do what we do best: arrange tableaux.
Real wars keep going after they end, by other means or by the same means, as Iraq shows. The Baathists in Fallujah, augmented by foreign predators and the followers of Moqtada Sadr, the ambitious young Shiite politician/cleric, took the fight to the Americans. The Americans obliged.
The mere fact of having been here before throughout history is not comforting. Post-wars can be lost, just like wars. After the end of the Civil War, violent white resistance in the South rolled back black rights by weakening the North’s willingness to sustain Reconstruction. Robert E. Lee surrendered, but because the Ku Klux Klan did not, President Grant was unable to accomplish what General Grant had. That is why the fighting in Iraq is as important as it is depressing. The die-hards must die hard. But we, the television-watching public, have a task, too-not to be mesmerized into paralysis.
All postmodern war is mindful of the camera. When did rabble the world over first bring hand-lettered signs in English to their demonstrations? During Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran? A similarly iatrogenic event landed on the front page of the April 10 issue of The New York Times -the grinning Iraqi man, all teeth, displaying a pair of American boots he had looted from an attacked supply convoy. This shot was more badly staged than most. No crowd, not even of idle boys, was gathered for an Adoration of the Boots. The man was, seemingly, all by himself, performing for Your Correspondent. College girls on spring break show their boobs for Girls Gone Wild ; this Iraqi showed his boots for Baathists Gone Wild . American men support the strip show with their bottomless appetite for flesh; Americans support the boot show with their appetite for failure.
Hence the need for other voices, other chat rooms. An Iraqi blogger named Ali asked, days after the fighting began, “What’s good about this riot?” (Ali’s English, though better than my Arabic, is not idiomatic, yet his choice of the word “riot,” rather than “revolution,” is interesting.) Historically, Ali explained, most Shiites wait calmly for the appearance of the Twelfth Imam, a messianic figure who will repair a broken world. Others, following the example of Khomeini, believe in leaders who can prepare the way for the Twelfth Imam. “After the fall of Saddam,” Ali wrote, Shiites of both persuasions hoped “that democracy will give them their golden opportunity to take the lead in Iraq for the first time since the seventh century.” So they “started a muscle show [show of force?] all over Iraq.” Yet they soon discovered “that the democracy that is about to take place in Iraq was not the dictatorship of the majority they were dreaming about. Instead the democracy that was presented to them and which they couldn’t refuse was a liberal democracy that gave all minorities their right to preserve their religious and ethnic identity …. They were annoyed to be awakened from their vivid dreams.” Sadr’s annoyance took the form of violence; more moderate clerics grumbled.
What does Ali hope for? “When this riot will be crushed … all the clerics will no longer seem as strong as they seemed before, and once they see … Sadir [his spelling] in handcuffs, they will think a million times before committing a similar stupidity in the future.” Even though we are not clerics, we can offer a prayer: from his lips to God’s ears.
Mohammed, another Iraqi blogger, wrote this at the height of the fighting on April 9, which was also the anniversary of the fall of Saddam. “It’s the day that brought me back to life …. A year ago at the same date, the thieves and criminals prevented me from celebrating my freedom in the open air, and today thieves, criminals and fanatics are doing the same, but they will not steal my happiness …. A year ago, words failed me as I met the 1st American soldier, and I still remember his name, ‘Corporal Adam,’ and all I could utter was ‘thank you!’ [How] could I ever put my whole life in [a] few words? How could I have thanked that soldier enough? How could I have told him what it meant to me to see him and his comrades-who brought me back to life-at last? … I lit the 1st candle today to celebrate my 1st year as a free man.”
Mohammed could speak to the unnamed Marine stationed in Iraq whose e-mail was posted by Andrew Sullivan on April 10, and which began in the classic laconic American mode: “Things have been busy here …. This battle is the Marine Corps’ Belleau Wood for this war …. We have to find a way to kill the bad guys only. The Fallujahans are fired up and ready for a fight (or so they think). A lot of terrorists and foreign fighters are holed up in Fallujah. It has been a sanctuary for them. If they have not left town they are going to die. I’m hoping they stay and fight.”
Andrew Sullivan (at andrewsullivan.com) was my link to Ali, who appeared at Iraqthemodel.blogspot.com, which is where I found Mohammed. Are they a representative sample? Do I look like a pollster? Do they have their own agendas? No doubt. But their agendas-the desire for liberty, and the determination to secure it-compare favorably with those of the Boot Man, who is at best mischievous, at worst a fanatic too cowardly or incompetent to take up an AK-47, but willing to help the cause of re-enslavement in little ways. The confusion of voices from the ground, on whatever side, is infinitely more interesting than Bob Kerrey’s audition for a Vice Presidential nomination at the hearings of the 9/11 commission. We do have a war on, and mistakes will be made, though none so bad as the mistakes all of us, Republicans and Democrats both, made when we imagined we lived in a world of peace.