04/09/2008 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Honorable Warriors in a Dishonorable War

No one could fail to notice how honorable a soldier Gen. David Petraeus is, and that includes committed opponents of the Iraq War. What made his latest testimony on Capitol Hill so moving was its reminder that a warrior's best qualities -- valor, coolness under fire, loyalty, and patriotism -- are no small thing. In fact, they used to be the test of manhood, and for centuries armies have served as the initiation and training ground for civil society.

That changed when war became a field for mechanized death and the push of a button could annihilate the enemy, with little regard for individual valor. But to forget that valor still exists is just as immoral.

War is where illusions go to die, but Gen. Petraeus and his troops aren't responsible for the falseness that threw America into an unjust, indefensible war. If only the soldiers could win and the war could be made just in retrospect. It can't, and the honor displayed by Petraeus and, in his own way, Sen. John McCain can't efface the pointlessness of the conflict they keep defending. One ugly side to this "free" war is that critics and supporters alike sit in warm, feathered comfort while a distant land is ravaged to the bare bones. Talk about "progress" seems almost obscene in such a situation, where the annihilation of a country is all but complete already.

In psychotherapy, it's well known that a patient can't be urged to take steps two, three, or four in his treatment if he doesn't accept step one. In the case of this war, we are asked to forget step one, but millions can't. Step one was choosing Iraq as a battleground under totally false pretenses, a preconceived agenda with no regard for justice and the well-being of the American people. Dark prophets who predicted that Islamic extremism would be strengthened by our invasion have proved to be right. Al-Qaida is a heroic cause throughout the Islamic world.

For policy wonks, there's a lot to argue about over the "success of the surge." If you clear out the underbrush, however, it's obvious that Shia fundamentalists are in the driver's seat. Iran is steadily turning the Mahdi army into another form of Hezbollah, a grass-roots armed militia that will hold power outside the reach of the official government. Tribal factions will feud; central control will dissolve. Within a decade the hegemony of Iran and Iraq over a third of the world's oil will belong to Shiite clerics behind the scenes. It's a terrible outcome to a doomed war, and one of the coldest comforts we can derive is that honorable men like David Petraeus soldier on without blame or recrimination.