America's Mortal Secret

The holiest acreage in America was consecrated in an act of revenge. Beating a retreat back to Washington from their defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Union soldiers crossed into the property of ''Arlington House," Robert E. Lee's home on the Potomac River. They buried the remains of their dead comrades in Mrs. Lee's rose garden. From then on, the Confederate leader's estate was used as a Union graveyard -- a vindictive payback. The place is now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

The blind impulse to respond to hurt by striking back is part of human make-up, yet the urge, opening into the forbidden irrational, is a deep source of shame, too. Humans clothe the act of vengeance in all sorts of other justifications. When we go to war, or then behave savagely in combat, we hardly ever explain the act by saying we simply must settle the score. But once, we did. When Harry S. Truman announced the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in an Aug. 9 radio address, he offered three justifications: the second was to shorten the war, and the third was to save American lives. But the first thing he said was that the atom bomb was used ''against those who have starved and beaten American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare."

Hiroshima was yet more punishment for the brutalities of die-hard island combat across the Pacific, and for Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the 900,000 killed by American bombing of nearly all Japanese cities, from the Tokyo raid in March to the Nagasaki bombing in August, were almost all civilians. In the American memory, they were justifiably killed to shorten the war, to save American lives, not for the unworthy motive of revenge.

Sept. 11, 2001, left the United States in the grip of an unarticulated need for payback. No one takes a blow like that without wanting to strike out. Stated justifications aside, that need fueled the subsequent American attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, which is why it meant so little when those justifications (bin Laden dead-or-alive, WMD, etc.) evaporated. And why it meant so little when the brutalities of American methods were made plain, from torture to hair-trigger checkpoints to ruined cities.

The misbegotten character of the war in Iraq was crystal clear last fall, yet John Kerry was unable to challenge it. Why? The answer has as much to do with the American unconscious as with his. The nation's war establishment, and those who support it, are driven by a motive they cannot admit, even to themselves. Their critics have mostly fallen mute because they have yet to find the language for what is really at work in this war.

Today marks the formal installation of an Iraqi government in Baghdad, one more ''turning point" toward ultimate US vindication. Like the others -- the fall of Baghdad, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the handover of ''sovereignty," and so on -- this turning point, with its definitive alienation of the Sunni minority, promises further chaos and destruction. Civil war is in the offing. But that weighs little in Washington's calculation because a primal need is still being satisfied, as if our gunships are striking back for the simple fact of a new American insecurity.

There is a connection between Iraq and the US firebombing of cities at the end of World War II. There is a connection with the Vietnam War, which ended 30 years ago last week. Despite all the talk about Sept. 11, 2001, as a moment of transcendent change, the events of that day, and what followed from them, were not transforming. Rather, they were revealing an epiphany laying bare currents of an American transformation set moving years before in massive acts of reprisal, beginning with the bombing of cities in Germany and Japan and continuing through the extremities of the US air war in Southeast Asia.

The bombing of cities in those wars, carried on even after studies had shown such bombing to be strategically futile, amounted to terrorism campaigns. That remains a harsh truth with which the American conscience has never reckoned. And after losing in Vietnam, the United States imposed a punitive 20-year embargo on that country for no other reason than the hurt we felt at having lost.

This is not how we see ourselves. Arlington National Cemetery is a garden again, a beautiful memorial to the many who died with only good intentions. But revenge remains its mortal secret, and America's.

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