The day the invasion of Iraq started almost two years ago -- the first day of spring in 2003 -- television networks couldn't contain their joy at their reporters' delirious reports from the front. The display of embedded videophones, portable satellites, night-sight scopes and armored media-mobiles neatly paralleled American power rumbling toward Baghdad. But anchormen got so drunk on their imaginary conquest of reality that it was left to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, to sober them up: "What we're seeing is not the war in Iraq," he told reporters that first day. "What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq." No one really listened then or since. Not even Rumsfeld, whose grasp of reality in Iraq soon became indistinguishable from those of magical realists like Baghdad Ali, Saddam's former minister of information.
Out of reality's rubble three wars have emerged in Iraq, only one of which -- the one being paid the least attention -- will matter in the end. The American occupation's twelve-step program for Iraqi freedom, of which Sunday's election barely gets past the second step ("we Iraqis were led to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity"), depends on projecting only one of those wars to the people back home, the American taxpayers who pay the bills and keep the illusion going.
That war started with founding lies that still have more currency than the dollar's value: Saddam's imaginary stockpiles of cataclysmic weapons, his imaginary alliance with al-Qaida, his imaginary plans to blow up American cities, the United Nation's supposed cowardice.
The White House then bought itself a "coalition of the willing" and, without paying a cent, bedded the media in time for the battle. Theatrics followed, like the rescue of that centerfold-blond soldier from West Virginia, the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad's al-Firdos Square, and the upcoming reinvention of the razing of Fallujah into some sort of heroic Marine triumph starring Harrison Ford.
From there it was a few steps, literally, to the transformation of the "Green Zone" from Saddam's Versailles to the American occupation's Club Med.
Then came the greatest imaginary reconstruction era in Mesopotamian history as schools, electric grids, water plants and roads destroyed by English-speaking ordnance were rebuilt, when a camera crew could be scrounged up to advertise it, with English-speaking good will.
The camera crews have gotten too scared to wander off on PR missions. What little rebuilding was taking place has diminished to a few lucky ghettoes with promotional pull, the way old company towns used to keep one street nice and pretty for the reporters while squalor's oppression reeked everywhere else.
But the profiteering and corruption of private companies doing the make-believe work has not been so imaginary. Those ledgers of deceit look innocent compared with the human cost of the occupation's greater lies.
Which brings up the second war, the one home viewers prefer not to see, the one where President Bush's personal demeanor -- his arrogance, his contempt for those who don't toe his line, his isolated, simpleton's world view, his mercenary solutions to problems, his armchair legionnaire's indifference to violence -- has pervaded exactly the means and method of the American occupation and its terrorizing adjuncts of private contract warriors.
In Iraq, the Ugly American is on a rampage, armed and angry. It isn't just that the occupation has managed to take one third as many Iraqi lives in two years as Saddam's reign did in 25, but that in Iraqis' eyes, as William Langewiesche sums it up in the current Atlantic, "we have broken down their doors, run them off the roads, swiveled our guns at them, shouted profanities at them, and disrespected their women -- all this hundreds of thousand times every day." There are repulsive similarities between Southern whites' treatment of blacks until the 1960s and the occupation's treatment of Iraqis now. It is a matter of attitude, and it begins with the president.
The third war, the war that matters most and is understood least, is the war going on within Iraqis themselves, or rather within Islamic nations. The Muslim world today is a religious Soviet bloc, oppressed but teeming with reformers. So think of that war as Islam's Reformation, an engagement with dogma and self-doubt without which no free society can survive, but also a return of religion to the private and the personal, rather than the political, without which no democracy can survive. If it's happening in Iraq at all, the occupation's redneck hubris is energizing its opposite forces, while Sunday's ballots are like painting pretty windows and flower pots on the walls of slums. Iraqis may yet find their way to historic reform, but not before the American occupation admits that it is now among the enemies of Iraqi freedom, not its enablers.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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