THE RHETORIC of war, in image and word: billowing American flags, "freedom" and "democracy." It is generalized and uplifting, soothing. The reality of war: death and dismemberment, oil and greed and the abuse of prisoners. It is utterly specific and deeply disturbing.
From the government and the media, we continually receive images of the heroism of our troops and their noble fight against terrorism. The deaths would seem less than pointless without that image, and no one wants to believe his or her child or friend died in a needless or evil war, or for the sake of mere wealth or sheer power.
Nevertheless, the war in Iraq inspires considerable cynicism in people around the world, and evidently in our own troops as well. The sight of American soldiers with "Hi, Mom" smiles, posed in front of naked prisoners arranged to simulate gay group sex, demonstrates the distance between our uplifting talk and our degraded reality.
We went to Iraq in the name of democracy, but in the process we made ourselves into Baathists, or perhaps showed the pre-existing Baathist leanings of the American state. We are headquartered in Saddam Hussein's old palaces. We are actively recruiting Republican Guard officers to take charge of security. And we've been torturing prisoners in Mr. Hussein's most notorious prison.
War does that to people. Sometimes you become what you hate. Sometimes what you're fighting against is what you are mutating into. The war on terrorism comes more and more to resemble ... terrorism.
The images that emerged over the past week of humiliated prisoners -- who, it seems, were often innocent of any crime -- may mark a turning point in the war, the point at which the condition of the American effort became terminal. It may show that victory is impossible. Certainly it tends to indicate that we do not deserve to win.
The sexual torture of prisoners provides ideal material for radical Islamist clerics. It signifies not only cruelty but degeneracy. We think of ourselves as bringing freedom. They think of us as bringing decadence and the destruction of their traditions and values. Suddenly, their case is convincing.
It is hard to imagine a worse turn of events for the American occupation than the release of these pictures. They constitute at once a critique of American culture and a justification of jihad, a religious revulsion expressible in violence.
To us, they ought to show the ever-growing gap between the high-minded rhetorical gobbledygook thrown up by the Bush administration and the actual filth of war: the infinite space between what we're saying and what we're doing, between the love and concern we're expressing and the death and degradation we're inflicting.
The gap is between self-defense and extreme domination, between the motive of democracy and motive of oil, between the rhetoric of charity and the reality of greed, the rhetoric of heroism and the reality of sadism.
People fighting a war dehumanize the enemy. That makes it possible to kill with a clean conscience. But by a perfect inversion, dehumanizing people in your mind makes them all the more human in reality -- vulnerable, desperate, trying to save themselves and their children and their homes.
And truly, dehumanizing others in one's mind dehumanizes oneself in reality. We are mutating amid our rhetoric of self-congratulation into monsters.
Crispin Sartwell, a syndicated columnist, teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Copyright © 2004 by The Baltimore Sun