I used to take a drink on occasion with a network newsman famed for his impenetrable calm — his apparent pulse rate that of a large mammal in hibernation — and in an avuncular moment he advised me that I'd do all right, in the long run, if I could only avoid the kind of journalism committed to the keyboard "with trembling fingers." I recognized the wisdom of this advice and endeavored over the years to write as little as possible when my blood pressure was soaring or my face was streaked with tears. The lava flows of indignation ebb predictably with age and hardening arteries, and nearing three-score I thought I'd never have to take another tranquilizer — or a double bourbon — to keep my fingers steady on the keys.
But I never imagined 2004. It would be sophomoric to say that there was never a worse year to be an American. My own memory preserves the dread summer of 1968. My parents suffered the consequences of 1941 and 1929, and my grandfather Jack Allen, who lived through all those dark years, might have added 1918, with the flu epidemic and the Great War in France that each failed, very narrowly, to kill him. Drop back another generation or two and we encounter 1861.
But if this isn't the worst year yet to be an American, it's the worst year by far to be one of those haggard wretches who comment on the American scene. The columnist who trades in snide one-liners flounders like a stupid comic with a tired audience; TV comedians and talk-show hosts who try to treat 2004 like any zany election year have become grotesque. Our most serious, responsible newspaper columnists are so stunned by the disaster in Iraq that they've begun to quote poetry by Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. They lower their voices, they sound like Army chaplains delivering eulogies over ranks of flag-draped coffins, under a hard rain from an iron sky.
Yeats' "blood-dimmed tide is loosed." The war news had already deteriorated from bad to tragic to pre-apocalyptic, which left no suitable category for these excruciating reports on the sexual torture of Iraqi prisoners. Fingers, be still. In less than a year, the morale of the occupying forces had sunk so low that murder, suicide, rape and sexual harassment became alarming statistics, and now the warriors of democracy — the emissaries of civilization — stand accused of every crime this side of cannibalism. Osama bin Laden has always loathed America's culture, as well as its geopolitical influence. To him these atrocities are a sign of Allah's certain favor, a great moral victory, a vindication of his deepest anger and darkest crimes.
Where does it go from here? The nightmare misadventure in Iraq is over, beyond the reach of any reasonable argument, though many more body bags will be filled. In Washington, chicken hawks will still be squawking about "digging in" and winning, but Vietnam proved conclusively that no modern war of occupation will ever be won. The only way you "win" a war of occupation is the old-fashioned way, the way Rome finally defeated the Carthaginians: kill all the fighters, enslave everyone else, raze the cities and sow the fields with salt. Otherwise the occupied people will fight you to the last peasant, and why shouldn't they?
If our presidential election fails to dislodge the crazy bastards who annexed Baghdad, many of us in this country would welcome regime change by any intervention, human or divine. But if, say, the Chinese came in to rescue us — Operation American Freedom — how long would any of us, left-wing or right, put up with an occupying army teaching us Chinese-style democracy? A guerrilla who opposes an invading army on his own soil is not a terrorist, he's a resistance fighter. In Iraq we're not fighting enemies but making enemies. As Richard Clarke and others have observed, every dollar, bullet and American life that we spend in Iraq is one that's not being spent in the war on terrorism. Every Iraqi, every Muslim we kill or torture or humiliate is a precious shot of adrenaline for Osama and Al-Qaeda.
The irreducible truth is that the invasion of Iraq was the worst blunder, the most staggering miscarriage of judgment, the most fateful, egregious, deceitful abuse of power in the history of American foreign policy. If you don't believe it yet, just keep watching. Apologists strain to dismiss parallels with Vietnam, but the similarities are stunning. In every action our soldiers kill innocent civilians, and in every other action apparent innocents kill our soldiers — and there's never any way to sort them out. And now these acts of subhuman sadism.
Since the defining moment of the Bush presidency, the preposterous flight-suit photo-op on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner, the shaming truth is that everything has gone wrong. Just as it was bound to go wrong, as many of us predicted it would go wrong — but more hopelessly wrong than any of us would have dared to prophesy. Iraq is an epic train wreck, and there's not a single American citizen who's going to walk away unscathed.