WASHINGTON--There is a large and overlooked truth about the American occupation of Iraq: Whereas in postwar Germany and Japan we were rebuilding countries that had been largely destroyed by us, in Iraq today we are rebuilding a country destroyed by its own regime.
In World War II, we leveled entire cities (Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, many more), targeted and razed the enemy's industrial infrastructure, killed and displaced countless civilians. We turned the countries to rubble; then we rebuilt them.
In Iraq, it was Saddam who turned the place to rubble. By any historic standard, the amount of destruction caused by the coalition was small. Most of the damage was inflicted upon the symbols, barracks, ministries and communication organs of the Baathist regime. The infrastructure--roads, bridges, dams, sewage systems, schools, mosques and hospitals--was barely touched.
And as for the people, one of the more unnoticed facts of this war was the absence of refugees--the Iraqi people's silent homage to their trust in the stated allied purpose of coming to liberate and not destroy.
Iraq today is a social, economic, ecological and political ruin not because of allied bombing, but because of Baath rule. Since 1979, Saddam managed the economic miracle of reducing by 75 percent the GDP of the second-richest oil patch on the planet. That takes work. Saddam's capacity for destruction was up to the task. He reduced the Shiite south to abject poverty. He turned a once well-endowed infrastructure to rot by lavishing Iraq's vast oil resources on two things: weaponry and his own luxuries. And in classic Stalinist fashion, he destroyed civil society, systematically extirpating any hint of free association and civic participation.
And don't talk to me about sanctions being the cause of this misery. First of all, Saddam willfully brought on the sanctions by violating the disarmament conditions that he signed to end the Gulf War. Moreover, the billions he skimmed and scammed from the U.N. oil-for-food program and from even shadier oil deals went into schools filled to the rafters with machine guns, into cold cash stashed behind walls and into shagadelic palaces--some 50(!) built after the Gulf War and thus under sanctions.
Upon the detritus of 30 years of indigenous misrule, we come to rebuild. This is not to say that we lack self-interest here. We are embarking on this reconstruction out of the same enlightened altruism that inspired the rebuilding of Germany and Japan--trusting that economic and political success in Iraq will have a stabilizing and modernizing effect on the entire region.
But our self-interest does not detract from the truth that what we are doing in Iraq is morally different from what we did after World War II. In Iraq, we are engaged in rescue rather than the undoing of our own destruction. We've undertaken the maddening task of cleaning up someone else's mess.
As the extent of the horror inflicted by the Baathist regime is documented day by day, opponents of the war are increasingly shamed. With every mass grave discovered, those who marched with such moral assurance just two months ago under the banner of human rights and social justice must make an accounting. In the name of peace, they supported the legitimacy and defended the inviolability of a regime that made relentless war on every value the left pretends to uphold:
Torturer, murderer, plunderer, despoiler. ``We've gotten rid of him,'' said presidential candidate Howard Dean, prewar darling of the Democratic left. ``I suppose that's a good thing.''
It was a very good thing. A noble thing. And rebuilding the place that Saddam destroyed is an even nobler thing. It is fine to carp about our initial failures at reconstruction; it is well to remember, however, the nobility of the entire enterprise.