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Iraq Syndrome Has Finally Arrived

By Daniel Henninger

You knew it had to happen. Haditha, an "incident" involving American troops in Iraq, is now part of the erosion of support for the war in Iraq. The Iraq Syndrome has finally arrived.

This past Monday, Memorial Day, a driver down Manhattan's fast West Side Highway would have slowed at 46th Street to allow the crossing of a constant stream of visitors heading to the USS Intrepid, the aircraft-carrier museum on the Hudson River. It was a beautiful day but a hot day to stand on long lines in the open sun. A small squadron of planes flew up the Hudson in the solemn missing-man formation, with one plane trailing. Amid the sunshine, the chairman of the Intrepid museum, Arnold Fisher, said something to the gathered crowd no one could have expected to hear.

Mr. Fisher, whose family runs the Fisher House Foundation for the military, suggested that the men and women at arms were being forgotten. And he apologized to them. "I apologize to you for carrying the burden of this nation's commitment to freedom and liberty alone." Mr. Fisher's bitterness over the troops is a Cassandra cry, a portent. But why now?

Opinion polls put support for the war below 40%. Still, it has become obligatory now as a nod across the political spectrum to the corrosive Vietnam Syndrome, to reassure that one's opposition is only to the war, not to the men fighting it.

Really? How does that work?

Arnold Fisher said the troops were forgotten, but they are very much on the minds of the news cycle just now. This Memorial Day week the news is preoccupied with stories of the Marine squad that allegedly killed civilians at Haditha, a town in Iraq. The narrative of this story has pretty much set in already: It's another My Lai, we all know they did it, the brass covered it up, and prison sentences for homicide are merely a formality.

Haditha is indeed the new Abu Ghraib. What this most importantly means is that any U.S. military action overseas now, no matter its level of justification, can be taken down by the significance assigned to events by the modern machinery of publicity. This explains why the U.S. commanders in Iraq announced yesterday that all soldiers in the next 30 days would take what the headlines are calling "ethics training." Of the some 150,000 U.S.-led troops there, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the U.S. combat commander in Iraq, said "99.9% of them perform their jobs magnificently." Yes, and 99.9% of them, after all they've been through, will deeply resent the clear inference they lack "core values." Is that different than standard "Corps values"?

Stories of apparently malfeasant U.S. troop behavior are arriving daily now. A military truck whose brakes failed from overheating crashed and killed Afghan civilians. Press reports are now fly-specking whether the troops shot over or at the rock-throwing mob of more than 300 that surrounded them. Every one of these troops surely knows the story of Mogadishu. Been there, never again. But there will be investigations of their behavior.

Finally came the even more lurid pregnant-woman shooting. As transmitted around the world by the BBC: "A pregnant Iraqi woman in labor and her cousin were shot dead by U.S. forces as they rushed to a hospital along a closed road, police and relatives say." The BBC's next four sentences neatly sum up the common story line now in play around U.S. troops: The soldiers said the car failed to heed a stop warning in a prohibited area; the driver said he heard no warning; U.S. troops will be "trained in moral and ethical conduct" and this "comes in the wake" of the Haditha allegations.

In El Paso, Texas, the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, whose death from a roadside bomb is the event said to have precipitated the Marine shootings at Haditha, said simply: "I don't even listen to the news." This may be the widespread reaction as the Haditha story overwhelms all else--enough, I don't want to hear about it.

And there begins the Iraq Syndrome.

Some elements of the newly ascendant Democratic left may welcome it, but no serious person in American politics should.

The Vietnam Syndrome, a loss of confidence in the efficacy of American military engagement, was mainly a failure of U.S. elites. But it's different this time. This presidency has been steadfast in war. No matter. In a piece this week on the White House's efforts to rally the nation to the idea of defeating terrorism abroad to thwart another attack on the U.S., the AP's Nedra Pickler wrote: "But that hasn't kept the violence and unrest out of the headlines every day." This time the despondency looks to be penetrating the general population. And the issue isn't just body counts; it's more than that.

The missions in Iraq and Afghanistan grew from the moral outrage of September 11. U.S. troops, the best this country has yet produced, went overseas to defend us against repeating that day. Now it isn't just that the war on terror has proven hard; the men and women fighting for us, the magnificent 99%, are being soiled in a repetitive, public way that is unbearable.

The greatest danger at this moment is that the American public will decide it wants to pull back because it has concluded that when the U.S. goes in, it always gets hung out to dry.

Two major military reports will come out soon on the Haditha incident, and no one will gainsay justice if that is required. But the atmosphere around this event is going to get uncontrollably manic, and that will feed the dark, inward-turning sentiments already poisoning the country's mood over issues like the immigration debate.

Good for Democrats? Don't count on it. After this, the public appetite for a Democratic president's "humanitarian" military intervention in a Darfur or East Timor will be close to zero.

One suspects that U.S. troops were party to some awful events in the Pacific and European theaters of World War II, all gone in the mists of history and the enemy's defeat. Not now. Gen. Chiarelli's magnificent "99.9%" notwithstanding, it's the phenomenon of the so-very-public 0.01%--at Abu Ghraib, on an Afghan street, at Haditha--that is breaking America's will this time.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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