Sunday, May 23, 2004

A Nation at War

As I write these words, we are a nation at war. In spite of this fact, I am able to get to work without passing through any military check points, there are no demolished buildings or ruins in my way and the only soldiers I see are unarmed off-duty ones from the local bases.

I am being just a bit facetious, of course. My point is that even though America is at war, most American's never actually see the war that we're fighting save for video and pictorial excerpts from various news outlets. As with the majority of the wars that our nation has fought, the brunt of the conflict is born by someone else.

This war is a particular curiosity. We've already defeated the government we were fighting, literally thrusting them into exile to be hunted down at a later day. We've managed to occupy the entire country from end to end and span to span. We've even initiated the process of installing a new government with a deadline of June 30th for handing over sovereignty. And yet, in spite of all this, it does not seem to anyone that the war is actually over.

Every week (sometimes daily) we hear reports of our soldiers getting killed and, in turn, killing people who we're calling insurgents and terrorists. If that's not bad enough, the conflicts are constantly being punctuated by bizarrities and atrocities from both sides of the conflict. It isn't always clear who, in fact, we're fighting. At first, we were told that it was old guard Baathists and Sadaam loyalists. Then we were told that it was foreign mercenaries and terrorists. Now we find ourselves fighting Islamists and factional extremists. It seems that every week, a new -ist crops up to add its bullets and RPGs to the fray.

There is also the question of why we are at war. We initially heard lots of things regarding weapons of mass destruction and purported links to Al Qaeda. The terrorism links were thrown into dispute before the war even started (although a significant number of Americans continue to believe that Sadaam Hussein was responsible for September 11th). The search for WMDs has proven thus far fruitless, even with the goals being shifted down to merely finding precursor laboratories.

The focus then shifted to freeing the Iraqi people from a terrible despot. I don't think that anyone denies that he was, indeed, a tyrant and that the world is probably better off without him, but the moral justification for the war has become tarnished not only by the obvious debacle at the Abu Ghraib prison but, more tellingly, by the fact that very few Iraqis view us a liberators anymore. More and more, we're considered occupiers. Some of them have expressed this view with protests while others – an increasingly growing number of others – have done so by firing weapons at our people.

I think that it's hard for my countrymen to really understand why this is the case. Even the President and his council seem nonplussed by this turn of events. I wonder if it is because we have a hard time understanding what it is to be at war. Few of us wake up wondering if we'll have electricity and water on a given day. We don't wonder if a errant bomb or round is going to kill us before our next meal. When we fall sick, we are confident that the hospitals will have the staff and supplies to treat us. We can make plans for tomorrow and the next week and the next year.

The people of Iraq don't have that luxury. When they go to work they do have to pass through military checkpoints. They do pass by demolished buildings and ruins. They do see soldiers, every day, who are armed and wary. While we are at war, they are the ones who are actually in the war zone. It is not awonder that their perspective on the war is so utterly different from our own. The question, which I have no answer to, is how to bring ourself to understand, at a visceral level, that we, too, are a nation at war.

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