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Mission Gone Bad

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"The best strategic minds in both parties have argued for months that the answer is essentially to muddle our way out, cut our losses carefully and try to salvage what we can from a mission gone bad."

This isn't pretty. Not when you think about the glory we reveled in four years ago. A superpower swooped into Iraq, routed a dictator, toppled a statue. Our prez did the equivalent of a dance in the end zone aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Damn, we're good.

And now? All that glory is something at the back of the refrigerator. "A mission gone bad." Hold your nose and see what you can salvage. Here's Time magazine in its July 30 cover story, holding its nose, detailing the ignominy: "U.S. agricultural inspectors insist that, before it re-enters the U.S., Army equipment be free of any microscopic disease that ... 'can wipe out flocks of chickens and stuff like that.'"

Bawk-k-k! Bawk-k-k!

This is what the backside of disaster looks like. Time calls it phased withdrawal, but you have permission to call it retreat. Suddenly America's best strategic minds are thinking about this. We have to get our troops out, plus all those civilians, including America-friendly Iraqis (yeah, sure). And then there's the equipment: tanks, trucks, helicopters, Humvees, the contents of 10 ammo dumps. But war also employs "downtime gear": vending machines, furniture, mobile latrines, computers, paperclips. The Pentagon will salvage as much of this stuff as it can, the magazine informs us (presumably sanitizing it first).

The Time article is itself a part of the phased withdrawal, of course -- as the invasion's mainstream cheerleaders finally begin confronting the mess we're in, in all its morning-after glory. The first thing they need to salvage is some dignity: their own, the president's, the nation's. This could be done by coming clean, facing up to the immensity of our mistake, vowing never to make it again. But this is retreat, not surrender. The strategy for now is to learn as little as we can, to abandon Iraq to the demons we unleashed but keep the lie of our reasonableness and good intentions intact.

The lie is woven into Time's reportage in many ways, but perhaps most blatantly with its depiction of two opposing "camps" here at home that are equally rash. Camp A wants to "pull out as quickly as possible." Camp B says we must "remain in Iraq until a democracy emerges from the chaos of the Middle East -- a project they openly acknowledge is the work of a generation."

One side represents rational urgency, the other psychotic denial; but Time delivers us "balance," fatuously opining that "neither approach makes much sense," then proceeding to acknowledge the necessity of phased withdrawal, which means, in effect, "pull out as quickly as possible" (but don't forget the latrines and paperclips).

However, the effect of not saying overtly what one is saying in actuality (shhh, don't tell anybody) is to avoid letting responsibility land anywhere -- on the neocon cabal that invaded Iraq on trumped-up intelligence, the war-profiteering sector of the economy or, ahem, the criminally gullible mainstream media that pushed the war on the American public. Instead of responsibility, what the magazine serves up is good old-fashioned know-nothingism. Iraq is a mission gone bad.

I would put it a little differently. Pre-emptively bombing the bejesus out of a non-hostile, essentially defenseless country, brutally and incompetently occupying it for an indefinite period of time, torturing many of its citizens and setting off a civil war is not a mission gone bad. It's a war crime.

In contrast to Time's journalism lite, The Nation recently ran a harrowing investigative piece by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian called "The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness." Based on interviews with 50 Iraq vets who generated thousands of pages of transcripts, it contains detailed accounts of the reality of our mission from the point of view of those who carried it out, and are emotionally if not physically scarred for life because of it.

Their words are almost too much to bear. Over and over again, these vets talked about American contempt for the lives and dignity of ordinary Iraqis, including, for God's sake, the children. This quote is typical:

"This unit sets up this traffic control point, and this 18-year-old kid is on top of an armored Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun. This car speeds at him pretty quick and he makes a split-second decision that that's a suicide bomber, and he presses the butterfly trigger and puts 200 rounds in less than a minute into this vehicle. It killed the mother, a father and two kids. The boy was aged 4 and the daughter was aged 3."

So it goes in Iraq. Scared American kids with guns run roughshod over the locals -- the "hajis" -- because that's their job. Their mission was conceived in arrogance and racism. It was doomed to fail and it deserved to fail. The great accounting must begin.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2007 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.