Death creeps up on you in Iraq. The longer you remain amid the country's violence, the more insistent, the more bullying it becomes. Over time, more people you know die, or are left maimed, or have scrapes with death that leave them psychologically scarred.
So begins one of the best reports from journalists in the field in the long, sad, failed Iraq adventure - Luke Baker's evocative Reuters report on living and reporting in Iraq. Baker's article is personal: it tosses away, for a moment, the reporter-subject convention, and portrays the reality of life in Iraq to those around him and the Reuters bureau there. And that reality is death - death in many gruesome forms, death for the sake of politics, for the sake of oil, for the sake of religion, death for the sake of the bloodlust of petty, murderous tyrants and killers. Oh, it is certain that is "is better to fight them in Iraq than in the streets of our cities," as the President and his lackeys insist. It is also certain that a doctrinaire, intellectually incurious, unblooded and stay-at-home gaggle of technocrats led by a faux cowboy from Connecticut unwittingly unleashed this waterfall of blood.
As Mo Dowd commented today (returned to form as she is, finally through with her mid-life crisis and honed like a Schick Quattro Razor to strike at the Bush chin stubble) we have returned to 1968: there is a mounting anti-war movement in America. This time, however, it is different. For one, it is not led by student radicals: we do not have a draft, so the college-bound upper middle class does not worry about the rigors of the battlefield. No, this movement is in the center - not so much the political center (it's heavy with liberals to be sure) as the center of regular American life: people with homes, jobs, cars, retirement plans, vacations, and high-speed Internet access. This is no "Michael Moore fringe" as the righties are keen to say (not that Moore is particularly fringe, given the sales of F-911: millions would have to be "radicals" to have made him as rich as he is). No this movement is very much like the one within the modern Roman Catholic Church in America, the lay movement of Voice of the Faithful, sickened by bureaucracy and yet loyal to the core: its leadership populated by Rosary Society types with plenty of gray hair and mass card buyers among them.
This is the movement of Cindy Sheehan, who has clearly survived the Swiftian smearing of the right to emerge into the broad sun-lit plains of the American mainstream, a brave and embattled Gold Star mother, the type of real-world person (looming divorce, mourning for her son, stricken elderly mother) that Americans can - and do - identify with easily. Camp Casey has become Camp Homeland, as the President's approval ratings slip below Nixon's, and a majority of Americans now oppose the disastrous Iraq adventure. Unwittingly perhaps, television preacher Pat Robertson - in his silly, addled call for assassinating Venezuela's socialist president - spoke for this movement; such an act was cheaper, cost less in lives and fortune. If we are honest, we can admit the Reverend Pat's words were thoughts that connect our Iraqi day-dreams; why didn't we just bump off Saddam?
The symbols have never been more stark: no screenwriter (even those who write farces) could have sold such a script in 2000, before the national election was pickpocketed by James Baker. Too unbelievable. A blithe, play-acting President on a bicycle on the ranch, under siege from a growing camp of aggrieved Americans while the finest, middle class youth of the nation is bled white thousands of miles away in the midst of a religious civil war triggered by the United States - with no hope of victory, no hope of Jeffersonian democracy, no hope for honor. Yes, this does sound like 1968 - minus the bicycle, and with lower approval ratings and a more mainstream opposition.
Yet, of course, the toothless, political cowardice of the Democrats must not slip away into the night of history. Particularly in this Congress, lockstep support for national security in the "time of war" has given the Administration the social checkbook it needs to write the bills for this war. Far too many Democrats went along for the ride, bought too easily into the argument that everything is different after 9-11. They missed the fact that one thing didn't change, despite the panic of the President and his little yelping terriers: we still have some national character in this country, we can't be sold a bill of goods forever, we know when to hold 'em and to fold 'em.
And folks, it's time to fold 'em. When the argument for continuing war is to merely to honor the dead that have gone before with more dead, with more wounded, with more destruction, you know the jig is up, that the military maneuver is merely in the form of a forlorn hope, destined to die for nothing. The Iraqi civil war will rage until there is no Iraq. There never was an Iraq, except as the construct of an empire and a dictator; we had no business in the squabbles of religious tribes. And we have no business in helping to write a consitution that places the lives of women at the mercy of a medieval code of sexist, moralist, symbolist humiliation and punishment. Conspiring with the mullahs against women may be George W. Bush's greatest act of treason against the world's people - and it will live in infamy.
There is nothing to this but to admit failure, and save American lives. Perhaps that is not honorable. Perhaps it leaves a vaccuum in the east, into which the hard-core religionists can step. Too bad: it is done. And we need to be done.
In Luke Baker's story, honest as it is, you can read the hopelessness of the situation between the stark lines of reportage, because this is George Bush's Iraq:
All along there have been stories about it -- those killed by aerial bombardments, children blown apart by suicide bombs, families caught in crossfire, slain at the hands of insurgents or murdered by criminals.
In March last year, I stood in the street in Kerbala as suicide bombers exploded among crowds of Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims, killing more than 100 people, including dozens standing around me -- strangers who became new victims of Iraq's conflict.
But in recent months, the deaths have grown more personalised -- it's not just random people who die anymore, but people you've met, people you've interviewed, some you know quite well, colleagues you work with every day, friends even.
Almost every week, someone on the staff at Reuters, just one of a dozen or so news organisations still operating in the country, has a new tale to tell of a relative -- a brother, a mother, a cousin, or a son -- killed in terrible circumstances.
Last month, one of the team of drivers, Yassin, said he needed some time off to look for his brother, who had been missing from his job as a blacksmith for five days. Relatives searched fruitlessly until, desperate, they decided to look in Baghdad's morgue, a building on the banks of the Tigris that is literally overflowing with bodies.
After trawling through the autopsy rooms, pulling out the cold trays on which the bodies are kept, Yassin found his brother, Ibrahim. He recognised him by the clothes he was wearing and by a tattoo on the inside of his arm.
He couldn't recognise Ibrahim's face because his body had been left outside in the sun after he was killed and the intense summer heat had burned his skin beyond recognition.
Does anyone remember "Mission Accomplished" and laugh? Or that rubber turkey the President was photographed with during his brief in-country photo opp that first Thanksgiving? Or the Pentagon's hidden caskets? Or going to war "with the army you have?" Or the WMD lie at the U.N.? Or Cheney's classic: "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."
Lies and worse: incompetence. So now Camp Casey will move from Texas to Washington DC, and indeed, will spread to cities and towns across the United States. And the moral relativist press will be finally shaken from its torpor. Even Russert will admit the waste. Even Andrea Mitchell will see the failture. Even Ruppert Murdoch will turn Fox to oppose the war from the right.
The war itself is over, the retreat will begin shortly, and Iraq will settle in to its own bloody reinvention over the next decade. And America, my country, will reel.