New wars, new triumphs, new horrors
By Adam Nicolson
It has been difficult to grasp the reality of this war, played out as it has been for us in a sequence of images, both on television and in the newspapers, where the editors and picture editors have done their best to imitate television in the printing, on page after page, of enormous colour photographs. It is as if the screen is now the necessary model on which reporting must be based. A reality is not a reality unless shown in 12in by 16in colour.
Nothing can quite match the grabbing simplicity of the war picture, the encapsulation of an idea in a scene that is, in effect, more tableau than reality, the mini-dramas that portray war in a single consumable bite-size chunk: our soldiers giving the thumbs up to smiling children, who give the thumbs up back; or its mirror-twin, the armless horror of Ali Ismail Abbas, holding back the tears when his body and his life are in ruins, a boy and a man, you can be sure, who will never give the thumbs up again; or the Stars and Stripes held like a smothering mask over the face of the bronze Saddam, as if it were a pad of chloroform-soaked cloth from a 1950s gangster movie; or the matching gesture from the Iraqis, impossible to imagine in the Western world, of Baghdadis beating that bronze, fallen face of Saddam with their shoes, as a sign of his place in the dust, beneath contempt, an act of rage, and of liberation, that worked in the purely symbolic sphere.
These pictures are unforgettable, just as pictures from previous wars have taken up permanent residence in our minds. The image of Ali Ismail Abbas will never go away, just as the little naked napalmed Vietnamese girl running in terror and agony down the rice paddy road towards us, a picture I first saw 35 years ago, when I was 10, has never gone away.
Far more than the images of the dead, even of dead children, which move on past painfulness into a blank futility, the pictures of those brutally damaged but still living children plunge deepest into us.
What is most distressing is that these deeply wounded children show the same reactions to their pain and suffering that we know from our own children when they stub their toes or cut their fingers: either fighting to be brave, or simply giving way to the wailing and overwhelming terror they feel. But these children in these pictures are armless, legless, skinless.
Pictures are not enough. And one or two of the facts now emerging from Iraq have about them a kind of sobering reality that reveals at least another side. The Pentagon, of course, made provision for American casualties. In what, by any account, and for anyone, however opposed to it, must be acknowledged as a brilliantly planned campaign (which took precisely as long, incidentally, to conquer Iraq as Hitler took to take France in 1940, a precision blitzkrieg on almost precisely that Wehrmacht model), one would expect nothing less.
But the sobering number is this: the American forces flew out to Iraq, to cope with the number of American dead they might in the worst circumstances expect, 77,000 body bags. Ally that number to another and one starts to see this war in a light that goes beyond the moments of facile triumph and heartrending pain. On every single day of the war, on average, the American forces used half a million gallons of fuel, more than 10 million gallons during the campaign.
Those are re-orientating figures, a measure of the grim seriousness of the American enterprise here. For all the talk of this having been "Iraq-lite", of this being a swift and nimble dagger strike into the heart of the Iraqi regime, that can only be a relative term.
This, for all its speed, was the act of a giant imperial power, with gargantuan resources on which it could draw and with a readiness to expect a terrifyingly large number of casualties in the process. These are surely the figures that portray, more accurately than any of the pictures, what is likely to happen next.
We are witnessing an enormous act of American empire, to be seen either as an American shouldering of the burden to cleanse the Middle East of its corrupt and destructive regimes or the protection and development of American interests in a world where the acts of September 11 changed America's relationship to it.
The destruction of the World Trade Centre and the attack on the Pentagon transformed its old isolationism into a new imperialism, one that is prepared to pay the costs, in both money and lives, of running a new world empire.
For many years, there have been American expeditions to trouble spots: Lebanon, Haiti, Somalia, quick raids, all of them more or less failures, leaving the places no better than they found them, on the whole departing with havoc in their wake. Those expeditions, and the lack of any long-term commitment in them, can be seen as being governed by the ghosts of Vietnam: let's get out when we can; nothing worse than being stuck in some godforsaken country for years.
But the shadow of Vietnam was erased by the fires of September 11. The Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns are a sign that the Vietnam experience is no longer the controlling influence on American foreign policy that it has been for three decades. There is no logical route from September 11 to the invasion of Iraq, but there is a powerful political connection: those attacks made sure that America is now intent on showing the world that it is the only hyperpower in town.
This new, gritty, Rumsfeld-shaped empire cannot conceivably stop its career now. It will inevitably move on to new wars, with new victims, new triumphs, new horrors. Nothing is over. America has only just begun to act its part as the new Rome: luxury, delight, sophistication at home; an almost unbroken series of wars on its frontiers and the crushing of the non-American on the edges of imperium.