In Iraq, a moment of truth

The people of Iraq will vote to elect a government tomorrow.  This is a decisive moment, one last chance to get it right in Iraq.  Not for the Iraqis, mind you.  They understand the stakes at play, and will demonstrate their usual courage in defying the zealots and the killers among them.  The Iraqi people will vote by the millions.  That is a safe prediction to make.

No, the moment of truth is for us.  The war is on.  There’s no undoing it, except by bringing disgrace and dishonor to our country.  No one doubts the physical courage of Americans.  That’s a magnificent virtue.  Yet it’s nothing without moral courage:  the wisdom to discern the right course, and to stick to it, in good times and bad, until the job is done.

I can think of nothing more disgraceful than moral cowardice.  If the world comes to think that Americans lack moral courage, the beheaders and self-detonators will redouble their efforts.  If it is shown that we, as a people, retreat from a cause we started and led, we’ll never retreat far enough to avoid the violent pursuit of our enemies.

No one knows this better than the only Americans currently in harm’s way:  our troops.  They are human.  They wish to live, to enjoy their families.  But they brim over with moral courage:  a wonderful excess, enough for all of us if we are lacking.  They wish to live, but on honorable terms.  Major Ben Connable, writing in the WaPo today, points a finger at the moment of truth for the American people posed by the Iraqi elections:

It is difficult for most Americans to rationalize this optimism in the face of the horrific images and depressing stories that have come to symbolize the war in Iraq. Most of the violent news is true; the death and destruction are very real. But experienced military officers know that the horror stories, however dramatic, do not represent the broader conditions there or the chances for future success. For every vividly portrayed suicide bombing, there are hundreds of thousands of people living quiet, if often uncertain, lives. For every depressing story of unrest and instability there is an untold story of potential and hope. The impression of Iraq as an unfathomable quagmire is false and dangerously misleading.

It is this false impression that has led us to a moment of national truth. The proponents of the quagmire vision argue that the very presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is the cause of the insurgency and that our withdrawal would give the Iraqis their only true chance for stability. Most military officers and NCOs with ground experience in Iraq know that this vision is patently false. Although the presence of U.S. forces certainly inflames sentiment and provides the insurgents with targets, the anti-coalition insurgency is mostly a symptom of the underlying conditions in Iraq. It may seem paradoxical, but only our presence can buffer the violence enough to allow for eventual stability.

Let’s hope that the moral courage demonstrated in Major Connable’s words and actions, and in those of the Iraqis, rubs off on Americans whose dispirited temper comes from nothing more threatening than the seven o’clock news.


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