THE WAR IN IRAQ goes from worse to catastrophic. Hundreds of Iraqis were killed last week, as were two dozen US soldiers. Planned elections in January point less to democracy than civil war. Kidnapping has become a weapon of terror on the ground, matching the terror of US air attacks. An American "take-back" offensive threatens to escalate the violence immeasurably. The secretary general of the United Nations pronounced the American war illegal.
In the United States, an uneasy electorate keeps its distance from all of this. Polls show that most Americans maintain faith in the Bush administration's handling of the war, while others greet reports of the disasters more with resignation than passionate opposition. To the mounting horror of the world, the United States of America is relentlessly bringing about the systematic destruction of a small, unthreatening nation for no good reason. Why has this not gripped the conscience of this country?
The answer goes beyond Bush to the 60-year history of an accidental readiness to destroy the earth, a legacy with which we Americans have yet to reckon. The punitive terror bombing that marked the end of World War II hardly registered with us. Then we passively accepted our government's mad embrace of thermonuclear weapons. While we demonized our Soviet enemy, we hardly noticed that almost every major escalation of the arms race was initiated by our side -- a race that would still be running if Mikhail Gorbachev had not dropped out of it.
In 1968, we elected Richard Nixon to end the war in Vietnam, then blithely acquiesced when he kept it going for years more. When Ronald Reagan made a joke of wiping out Moscow, we gathered a million strong to demand a nuclear "freeze," but then accepted the promise of "reduction," and took no offense when the promise was broken.
We did not think it odd that America's immediate response to the nonviolent fall of the Berlin Wall was an invasion of Panama. We celebrated the first Gulf War uncritically, even though that display of unchecked American power made Iran and North Korea redouble efforts to build a nuclear weapon, while prompting Osama bin Laden's jihad. The Clinton administration affirmed the permanence of American nukes as a "hedge" against unnamed fears, and we accepted it. We shrugged when the US Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, with predictable results in India and Pakistan. We bought the expansion of NATO, the abrogation of the ABM Treaty, the embrace of National Missile Defense -- all measures that inevitably pushed other nations toward defensive escalation.
The war policy of George W. Bush -- "preventive war," unilateralism, contempt for Geneva -- breaks with tradition, but there is nothing new about the American population's refusal to face what is being done in our name. This is a sad, old story. It leaves us ill-equipped to deal with a pointless, illegal war. The Bush war in Iraq, in fact, is only the latest in a chain of irresponsible acts of a warrior government, going back to the firebombing of Tokyo. In comparison to that, the fire from our helicopter gunships above the cities of Iraq this week is benign. Is that why we take no offense?
Something deeply shameful has us in its grip. We carefully nurture a spirit of detachment toward the wars we pay for. But that means we cloak ourselves in cold indifference to the unnecessary suffering of others -- even when we cause it. We don't look at any of this directly because the consequent guilt would violate our sense of ourselves as nice people. Meaning no harm, how could we inflict such harm?
In this political season, the momentous issue of American-sponsored death is an inch below the surface, not quite hidden -- making the election a matter of transcendent importance. George W. Bush is proud of the disgraceful history that has paralyzed the national conscience on the question of war. He does not recognize it for what it is -- an American Tragedy. The American tragedy. John Kerry, by contrast, is attuned to the ethical complexity of this war narrative. We see that reflected in the complexity not only of his responses, but of his character -- and no wonder it puts people off. Kerry's problem, so far unresolved, is how to tell us what we cannot bear to know about ourselves. How to tell us the truth of our great moral squandering. The truth of what we are doing today in Iraq.
James Carroll's most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.