NEW YORK--Sectarian civil war, long predicted by yours truly and other antiwar types, has arrived in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Sunni bombs killing a hundred people a day, spurred on by Al Qaeda and a declaration of "all-out war" in retaliation for the Shiites' refusal to allow Sunni representation in the next government, have become routine. Kurds and Arabs are assassinating each other over oil rights. A year ago, these developments would have sparked accusations, counterarguments and fierce debates in the U.S. over what to do next. Now, no one cares.
Passions that burned hot during the build-up toward and immediate aftermath of the spring 2003 invasion have cooled and hardened into bitter, silent, mutual disdain. Supporters of the war, their ranks dwindled to a hardcore 44 percent in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, remain true believers regardless of its $2,000-a-second price tag, intentionally unquantified carnage among Iraqis and continued failure to locate weapons of mass destruction. For those opposed to America's adventure in nation-building, neither Saddam's reported confessions nor any number of "things are better in Iraq than the media says" reports (in the media, natch) can change their minds.
The war divided families, destroyed relationships, even prompted the vandalism of cars adorned with the wrong bumper sticker--but that was then, back in 2004, during a hotly contested election campaign featuring a warmongering draft dodger challenged by a peacenik Vietnam vet. Iraq has faded from the top headlines, its daily agony of dead, wounded and bombing victims downgraded to the dismal, gray status of a daily box score. It has been replaced by fresher outrages--the government's non-response to Hurricane Katrina, skyrocketing gas prices, rising unemployment, white-collar criminals subjected to excessive prison sentences on a par with those received by druggies. Waiting in the wings: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, depending on what acts of state treason prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald managed to dig up over summer vacation.
The fighting over the war is over. Long live the war.
Television and its 24-hour news cycle may be the poisonous root causes of national ADD, but our growing disinterest in Iraq also owes a lot to the polarization that has characterized reaction to this war ever since it was conceived in Dick Cheney's executive suite. Americans remained focused on World War II through four tough years partly because the war effort required a wholesale transformation of the economy and everyday life, but also because its initial popularity--affirmed by a legal, Congressional declaration of war--amounted to society's tacit commitment to endure the inevitable ups and downs. By contrast, Americans' initial support of intervention in Vietnam proved wide but thin after the growing cost reminded them that the endeavor had been optional from the start.
As Gordon Goldstein, national security adviser to JFK and LBJ, said in 2003: "There was no strategy to generate public support for an engagement that would be long and costly and difficult. They didn't sell it that way in Vietnam and they haven't sold it that way in Iraq."
The Iraq war, validated by neither constitutional legality nor (unlike Vietnam) international endorsement via the U.N., prompted millions to protest before it even began. So when the reality of Iraq belied the Bush Administration's promises--no WMDs, no body armor, no rose petals, no mission accomplished--we clammed up like a bickering couple whose positions are intractable and diametrically opposed. After 9/11, only a fool would have let Saddam remain in power, say the Bushian 44 percent. And 56 percent reply: only a fool would have attacked Saddam while 9/11 remained unavenged. But they keep their opinions to themselves and the occasional pollster.
Without consensus, war relies on publicity to keep it a priority. News that is always the same, however, is no longer news. Another suicide bomber kills 20 Iraqi policemen near Mosul. Another roadside bomb (IED if you watch Fox, because Fox likes military jargon) blows up a Humvee or Bradley fighting vehicle, killing three Marines and an Iraqi translator. Another helicopter crashes in a sandstorm; the Pentagon is conducting another investigation to determine whether weather, enemy fire or faulty equipment is to blame. Since March 2003, suicide bombings and burning choppers have become almost as routine as the sun rising in the east--and thus, from a producer and editor's standpoint, boring.
At Starbucks and sports bars, Americans are talking about broken levees and gas prices, not Iraq. We have not yet arrived at the point where Americans were during the early '70s, when Walter Cronkite read the (fictional) casualty reports from both sides of the Vietnam conflict alongside such financial minutiae as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the number of shares traded on the NYSE, and used similar graphics to illustrate both. Nevertheless, the war has become institutionalized. It is background noise. It is hard to imagine what could happen in Iraq that would make pay attention and talk, even argue, about the war. A bomb that killed a thousand civilians? Probably not even that ...
Right or wrong? Essential or idiotic? When it comes to the war against Iraq, Americans only agree about one thing: It is no longer interesting. And so, pro or con, it is lost all the same.