Iraq: The Weirdest War of Them All

The weirdest war in world history — well, all right, U.S. history — will begin winding down in 2006: too fast for some, not fast enough for others.

The United States, with no thought whatever of abandoning the Iraqis to their own devices, understands the time has come to begin easing out the door and bringing the troops home.

We won’t declare victory and leave — Sen. George Aiken’s immortal prescription for breaking off our Vietnamese engagement. We will declare, with considerable justification, that the Iraqis themselves are becoming equipped for the heavy lifting still ahead. Then we’ll start drawing down our ground forces in Iraq — slowly, gradually, until maybe just a few remain.

At which point, we might expect the commentators and analysts and political generals to take over. Except that for most of the distance along the bomb-pitted road we have walked in Iraq, the voices of the commentators and analysts and political generals have sounded louder than anyone else’s. I mean that — louder even than the voices of the Commander-in-Chief and his planners and generals, who only lately have acknowledged failure to tell their story adequately.

This has been a media war. That is what has made it so weird and so unsettling. Nothing seems to happen in Iraq without jostling between those waging the war and those critiquing it — to the enormous confusion of viewers and readers.

Modern media theory insists on the media’s right — nay, duty — to hold the government accountable for its actions. Which actions, and in what context, isn’t always clear. Whereas formerly we turned over the waging of war to the U.S. government, we now take for granted a kind of supervisory role in all this for the commentators and analysts and political generals — a role that television and, especially, the Internet have magnified.

Via the Internet, we know everything that happens as soon as it happens. Equally, we have viewpoints on what happens: viewpoints that swarm and fragment and collide. Viewpoints that require (as viewpoints will) endless and exhausting repetition.

How much the average American voter really understands about Iraq isn’t the least bit clear. Oh, but viewpoints — we got ’em! Bush lied! No, he led! There was no need for the war. There was every need for it. The Sunnis hate us. We’re defusing Sunni anger. We can do business with the Shiites. The Shiites are the Iranians’ boys. We’re spilling blood for nothing. We’re spilling blood for peace.

Take your pick. You find it all on the Internet — and on the political stage, where the Internet-fueled frustrations of Democrats and Republicans play out daily: the latest feud having arisen over a New York Times report about war-on-terror wiretaps. Just what we needed: one more thing to yell at each other about in the middle of a war.

We used to suppose that in wartime, one fought the enemy. No more, it seems. We fight each other now: Bush foes against Bush friends, Republicans against Democrats, commentators against commentators. Should you wonder why, self-deputized spokesmen in each warring camp will gladly wise you up. Bush lied! No, he led! And so on. How all this looks to the outside world, we can only imagine. A strong, confident America disposing of its enemies would seem to others — wouldn’t you suppose? — like a giant you don’t want to touch. A divided, bitter and perpetually squabbling America, headed by a president the ACLU wants to impeach, is a country that seems unlikely to scare off determined enemies.

Once upon a time, we sought victory in war. No wonder our wars were generally victorious. What we now seem — wearily — to want is a stop to the screaming, the vilification, the accusations, the moral muddle. We went into Iraq determined to oust a slimy, America-hating dictator who, by cooperating with outside inspectors, could have settled accusations about his commitment to build chemical and biological weapons. We won, but the screaming goes on. Weirder wars than this one, you wouldn’t want to see. I mean, would you?