In his classic "Journal of a Plague Year," Daniel Defoe sketches a chilling scene of a great city shuttered and still, its silence broken only by continual tolling of bells and cries from the streets of "Bring out your dead!" heralding arrival of more carts heaped with bodies.
That description becomes all the more terrible because it signifies that people have learned to accept the unacceptable. It is a condition common to all calamities involving heavy loss of life and mass destruction, whether they stem from unavoidable natural causes such as earthquakes or plagues or from human ones such as wars that are supposed to be avoidable.
But this war, for Americans, seems different. It has been antiseptic, remote, almost unreal. After less than a month, it is settling into a routine. Already, public attention flags. In this shadowy split-screen conflict, we glance at wonders of high-tech warfare as "smart" bombs strike spectral targets, and then we quickly switch channels. That will change, of course, if and when a full-scale ground offensive begins and the inevitable attendant horror comes home in a stream of flag-draped coffins. For now, though, the nation appears to be learning how to accept this war, adapt to it and go about other business. The war is "going well." What else is new?
One reason for this almost surreal state is obvious. After more than three weeks of battle, this has been virtually a cost-free war for the United States in terms of lives lost, compared with what one would expect and with what the military in fact anticipated and planned. It also is a war in which the public takes unaccustomed pride, compared with Vietnam, in the performance of its military at all levels. Even the loss of lives largely has been a result of tragic mistakes, not enemy skill or superiority. The public has accepted these too, knowing that the types of incidents in which American personnel were killed through misdirected "friendly fire" are common to all wars.
Even more striking has been the degree to which Iraqi losses have been so cloaked as to be nearly invisible. Occasionally, glimpses of war's high costs and lasting consequences do pierce the public screen, but they are fleeting and still bloodless.
That was the case Wednesday morning when an American scholar, an expert on ancient Mideast civilizations, discussed on NBC's "Today" program news reports stating that the National Museum in Baghdad containing priceless historical treasures had been bombed inadvertently.
"That is the most important repository of Mesopotamian antiquities," McGuire Gibson, 52, professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, said later that day in a telephone interview. "It's as big as the National Gallery in Washington, and it's important both in terms of its art objects and its written documents. There are probably 50,000 clay tablets from antiquity in that building, plus all the records of all the digs since 1922 -- and all the photos of all the objects."
The museum, with which the professor is intimately acquainted, is about 400 yards from Baghdad's main television station, 300 yards from the main railroad station and two city blocks from the intown airport. "I'm sure we're not targeting this building," he added, "but it becomes more and more apparent that our bombing is not as accurate as we claim, that our 'smart' bombs are not all that smart. Even when smart bombs exactly hit their target, they still can cause tremendous blast damage."
His main concern, he said, is two-fold: that Americans don't realize how significant a role that Iraq, then Mesopotamia/Babylon, played in the creation of modern civilization and that "it's quite clear we are destroying everything that makes Iraq a modern country."
The professor believes that this is "the dumbest war we've fought in a long time. It's a tragic mistake, and it's going to cost us for years to come in the Arab world," in a wave of anti-Americanism that he fears would follow war's end.
His view clearly is not shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans, but this could change as the prospect of land war nears.
In the last six months, President Bush has made three fateful decisions: to draw that "line in the sand" to counter Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, to double U.S. combat forces in the Persian Gulf after the November election and to initiate the most massive air attacks in history. Now he approaches perhaps the most difficult: whether to launch a ground war that could instantly turn the surreal war into the worst reality.