Forgive me, but the head reels. A prison scandal in Iraq -- already investigated, already in repair, but only recently and sensationally publicized -- is now our nation's destiny, not to mention our national character. City on the Hill? Abu Ghraib. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Abu Ghraib. Yorktown, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Verdun, Midway, Hamburger Hill, Baghdad? Abu Ghraib. Mark Twain, Mickey Mouse, the Salk vaccine and bubble gum? Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib.
Why? Because Abu Ghraib is, more than anything else, the fulfillment of the media dream, the Vietnam they think they never had (or had a very long time ago), the aberration to obsess about, the disgrace to exult in and the opportunity -- and this is key -- to shift the political landscape. That is why 30-some instances of abuse at Abu Ghraib, which range from acts resembling extreme fraternity hazing to actual sexual assault, have sucked all the oxygen from the conflict's urgent questions of life and death, truth and falsehood, and civilization and barbarism.
But isn't Abu Ghraib just such an urgent question? No. The humiliations and assaults perpetrated by a "handful" -- and how the media hate that non-collective word -- of American servicemen and women are already against both our laws and our sense of decency. There is nothing here to settle (but please -- no more women in combat theaters). Criminals will be punished. That is why this is not a Big Story, at the top of the president's list, the focal point of the world.
Or, rather, it shouldn't be. But here is where the insatiable media desire for fulfillment comes in. With Abu Ghraib, the old antagonisms between the media and the military return, with the counter-culturally-minded media exulting over a high and mighty military slip. More than the hard-luck hunt for WMDs, more than the stalemate in Fallujah, more than the death of Pat Tillman, Abu Ghraib is a setback that reflects badly not only on the war effort, but on American serviceman, and in that there is political opportunity.
CNN, for example, couldn't and didn't wait to use Abu Ghraib as a "segue" into a nostalgic, sicko reminiscence of My Lai, the 1968 civilian massacre in Vietnam that still defines the American military for a lingering generation of media, Democratic and Hollywood elites.
According to watchdog group Media Research Center's account of the CNN report, images of the My Lai mayhem were followed by images of the naked backsides of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "We all carry with us the potential to be the killer and the victim," said CNN's Bruce Morton, reading the words of a Vietnam-era medic, adding: "Maybe that's the lesson now, too."
Sorry, that wasn't the lesson then, and it's not the lesson now. But it's one the media love to teach. As a Washington Post writer opined, "These (prison) photos are us. ... These photos show us what we may become, as occupation continues, anger and resentment grows (sic) and costs spiral..." and so, hysterically, on. Woe to us all if we buy this again, that American soldiers -- we -- are the enemy. Such twistedness lost us Vietnam at home, and it may lose us Iraq, also at home.
Just as the media stampede to depict the U.S. military as a bunch of war criminals came sweeping by, a posse of good guys in white hats -- Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- stood up to say it wasn't so. That is, it wasn't so in Vietnam, they said with great seriousness at a remarkable Washington press conference (which the Associated Press, incidentally, failed even to report), directly contradicting everything John Kerry has maintained since jump-starting his public career with tales of unproven wartime atrocities in 1971. "It is a fact that in the entire Vietnam War we did not lose one major battle," said Robert Elder, a member of this organization of sailors who served with Mr. Kerry and who believe he is unfit for the presidency. "We lost the war at home," Mr. Elder continued, "and at home John Kerry was the field general."
Strange that a man who once marshaled the forces of the Vietnam antiwar movement to transform, symbolically, the American soldier from good guy to baby-killer would vie for the presidency at a time when the still inchoate forces of the Iraq antiwar movement seek a poster boy, an atrocity, a way to pull the plug. That slander long ago, amplified by a willing media, eroded support for the Vietnam War, leading to our unconscionable abandonment of the South Vietnamese people in 1975. No wonder the rush to tar our armed forces as "torturers" today has that sick-making '70s ring. Abu Ghraib, however, doesn't have to be a turning point -- unless we let them make it one.