Three Memorial Days have now passed since the current war in Iraq began. For the families of Americans who are serving or have served there, the war in Iraq is anything but forgotten.
But for millions more of us, the war is more a report on the news, a picture in the paper, a line heard in a sermon or a speech. We know it is still going on, but we no longer think about it much. The carnage we see and the cries we hear sadden us but no longer penetrate. Our senses have been deadened.
In Washington, where the decisions were made to make this war, winning it remains an obsession for those who bear the responsibility. This is true even though the euphoria that followed the January elections has been dissipated by the new government's confusion and the shocking revival of the insurgency. There is no end in sight, and the direction of things no longer looks upward.
While the polls show more and more doubt in the country about the course of events of Iraq — and about the wisdom of our invasion — Washington resolves to stay the course. The Bush administration and its allies in Congress show an undiminished capacity for toughing it out when policies do not yield the expected result.
Beyond toughness, this resolve bespeaks a lack of practical alternatives. Hardly anyone in the capital talks seriously of leaving Iraq soon, but when was the last time anyone had another idea other than to train more Iraqi police and security forces?
After the Memorial Day break, a bipartisan group of about a dozen in Congress is expected to convene and begin discussing ways to attenuate the American commitment in Iraq. A small beginning, it could be significant if it leads to a wider debate.
The remarkable thing is that there has been so little debate of late. Congress recently approved another $80-plus billion emergency appropriations bill dominated by spending for the war in Iraq. It took months to get through Congress, but the delay was all about unrelated spending and other provisions freighted on to the bill. The war itself and the strategy for pursuing it were treated as if they were beyond discussion. One amendment asking for a plan for withdrawal was quickly dismissed (and received just 128 votes out of 435).
Compare this to the fracas over the first emergency spending bill for Iraq, which got through Congress in the waning months of 2003. Its $88.5-billion price tag, coming atop the initial costs of the war, brought disbelief and protest from Congress and the country.
An obscure New England governor named Howard Dean seized on that mood, becoming not only the leading anti-war candidate for president but also the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. He forced several of his rivals — including John Kerry — to shift gears and vote against the appropriation. Today, every Democrat knows how successfully that shift was later used to pillory their eventual nominee as a flip-flopper in 2004.
Questioning a war in progress is a thankless task at best and can become a form of political suicide. If you probe the state of affairs you risk being labeled soft on terrorism, a friend of Saddam or a traitor to the troops.
That is one reason all the fights in Washington today seem to be about something that's down in the weeds or way off in the future. We find it easier to debate stem cell research, federal judgeships or even an ambassadorship because they are less intense, less important and less immediate than the war. Not knowing what to do about the conflict at the center of our national anxiety, we find it easier not to talk about it.
No one expects a sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But also it seems increasingly unrealistic to expect that we will ever be able to placate Iraq by fiat, or to leave Iraq with assurance that all will be peaceful when we're gone.
If the choice is between an unhappy withdrawal soon and an open-ended commitment to occupation, then the debate over that choice should begin now.