Shock and awe are back, this time in the images of U.S. soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.
The pictures, broadcast on CBS' "60 Minutes II" and now reprinted in newspapers around the world, are America's worst nightmare. We who have positioned ourselves as the sane solution to an uncivilized world - standard bearers of human decency and fairness - now can be viewed as the infidels many already believed we were.
Islamist recruiters can pack up their cameras and take early retirement thanks to a few bad actors who have provided all the images needed to promote anti-American hatred, while putting the lives of their military kin at greater risk.
No one feels more betrayed than Americans who have tried to hold steady during an excruciating period of second-guessing and rising death tolls. Except, perhaps, for the American soldiers in Iraq who daily risk their lives while trying to perform professionally.
I heard from one such soldier a few days ago. I don't usually like to share my precious real estate with others, mucking up my prose with someone else's words, but this particular letter comes at a time when Americans need to hear from a grown-up on the ground in Iraq. Today I'm going to let him do most of the talking.
Meet Sergeant First Class Charles M. Grist, an Orlando native and member of the Altamonte Springs Police Department, who is the NCOIC (non-commissioned officer-in-charge) of the Protective Service Detail for Gen. Charles Davidson of the 350th Civil Affairs Command in Baghdad. Translated, he's the military equivalent of the Secret Service whose job is to protect the general.
No kid at 55, Grist is also an Army Ranger who served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division as a rifle platoon leader (1970-71). He is both outraged by the images that left most Americans cringing, and he is worried. Mostly, he's worried that the behavior of a few will taint America's image and that some, even back home, will "My Lai" the incident into a larger blamefest.
"It reminds me of my service in Vietnam," writes Grist. "After the My Lai massacre, the peace activists and others began referring to all veterans of that war as 'murderers' and 'baby killers.' At first, it caused fistfights; later we just shook our heads at the stupidity of the people insulting us. Another such transfer of blame cannot happen to this generation of warriors."
While the effect of the prison images is likely to further erode our credibility in the Arab-Muslim world, at least temporarily, and potentially make Iraq even more volatile, the madness at Abu Ghraib was confined to a few and doesn't accurately characterize the U.S. military.
Regardless of our disgust and disappointment, this was no My Lai. Nor was it Saddam Hussein's Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were brutally tortured, raped and murdered. Where the armies of North Vietnam and Iraq were rewarded for committing atrocities, American men and women will be punished.
So far six (all officers and noncommissioned officers) have received severe administrative reprimands; a seventh officer received a more lenient reprimand; another six U.S. military police face possible criminal charges. Such is the beauty of law among the lawless.
And such, Grist hopes, will be the message telegraphed to the world. In the meantime, he urges resolve among his countrymen, and especially among America's leaders. Again, he remembers the lessons of Vietnam, a war lost politically rather than militarily.
"From my service in Vietnam as a young lieutenant to my experience in Iraq as a somewhat crusty old sergeant, I must ask one thing of our civilian leaders: If you are not going to win, do not send us to war. If you do send us to war, then give us everything we need, not only to win, but to finish the job."
Grist is equally passionate about U.S. commitment to the Iraqi people.
"I know many who risk death every day just by working for the Coalition, but who, like the brave patriots of another nation long ago, put their lives on the line for their country. We cannot betray or abandon these brave people."
And finally, Grist breaks our hearts with this: "Either way, I can promise America your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, your husbands and wives, your fathers and mothers and, yes, even those of us who are grandparents, will endeavor to serve America with professionalism and honor."
No translation needed.