"Who the hell is shooting at us?" a US soldier yelled last week. His platoon was in a strife-torn part of Baghdad, teamed with an Iraqi Army unit. Gunfire was coming from all directions. "Who's shooting at us? Do we know who they are?"
My intention was to give readers of this column a break from the war. How many ways are there to say no? But then I read the vivid New York Times account of that soldier's dilemma, and it took over the field of my concentration: "Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shi'ite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say." The confused battle was a foretaste of what President Bush's new war strategy entails, with American forces caught between enflamed antagonists, with uncertain allies. In Washington, equivocating politicians look for the least horrible way forward, but in Iraq, US soldiers have been ordered into what increasingly shows itself as a deathtrap.
Two things fuel the nation's escalating anguish about this war. The first is the steady closing of the vise on American forces in Iraq. Despite the martial virtues of the US fighters -- their devotion to duty, their organizational competence, their raw courage -- the actual combat situation worsens by the day. Their casualties mount, but the more dramatic measure of the chaos are the runaway numbers of Iraqi victims. The tribal savagery is feeding on itself now, an endless loop of violence to which the United States is increasingly irrelevant. Indeed, in one of the oddest reversals of the war, the American military presents occasions not of damage control, but of collateral damage. The bullets whizzing around the soldier in the Times story, originally meant for someone else, were aimed at him only because he was there.
At the same time, just by being in the streets to shoot at, our well-armed soldiers empower the gunmen on all sides. Perhaps the most destructive unintended consequence of America's lethal presence has been the way the lethal power of all belligerents has scaled up to match it. Our young people are surrounded now by killers united only in the will to kill them. Operation deathtrap, exactly.
But anguish about the war is equally fueled by what is happening in Washington. After the State of the Union address, anti war Republicans and Democrats began vying with each other over ways to challenge the Bush policy, even as Vice President Dick Cheney bluntly declared of congressional action, "It won't stop us." And sure enough, the Democrats and Republicans quickly tempered their opposition. The tough Capitol Hill talk of capping troop levels and setting timetables gave way to mere rhetoric, the function of which is to rescue the consciences of the war skeptics instead of rescuing the lives of the war fighters. While soldiers show astounding courage in conducting their missions impossible, politicians have stepped back from political risk to define their own options in ways that will justify policies of no real change. The war-disapproving resolution before the Senate this week, if passed, will have no effect on operations in Iraq.
Cheney, in characteristic fashion, was the one to throw down the only gauntlet that matters. "The Congress has control over the purse strings," he said last week. "They have the right, obviously, if they want, to cut off funding. But in terms of this effort, the president has made his decision." Cheney is daring Congress to use the appropriations process as a way of challenging Bush's decision, knowing full well that Congress lacks the will to do so. Yet, as the administration looks for additional funds to launch its "surge," stopping the money is the obvious and simple way to go. Bush and Cheney will double their losing bet by pushing more young Americans into the pot, while the Congress restricts itself to kibitzing.
Critics charge that even incremental cuts in war funding -- setting real caps and real timetables -- would amount to an abandonment of the troops. The answer to that charge comes from the troops themselves: "Who the hell is shooting at us?" To leave our soldiers in the deathtrap of Iraq is the true abandonment. They are being shot at by Sunnis, Shi'ites, their Iraqi Army allies -- and now, in a grievous failure of public morality, by feckless politicians in Washington.