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Amid the cheers, sobering facts

THE NEWS stopped America: Saddam Hussein captured -- not in some kind of command bunker, running the guerrilla war, but in a "spider hole," with mice and rats. For the last two days, interruption was the motif as the report upended assumptions about the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US presidential election, the financial markets, even the shopping season. Good news all around, if you can believe the first reactions. Dec. 13 was being described as a historic day because of the bedraggled man found cowering in the dark.


Thinking especially of Saddam's history as a long-time murderer of Kurds and Shi'ites, a range of people declared a day of celebration -- from Baghdad passersby to US soldiers to Howard Dean to television anchors to editorial writers. I might have said so, too, except for the meeting I was coming from when the news came to me.

I had spent Saturday in Washington at a conference organized to protest the Smithsonian's new National Air and Space Museum exhibit that opened yesterday. A centerpiece is the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In 1995, a previous exhibit drew fire from veterans groups and the Air Force Association because curators had provided "context" which suggested that President Truman's decision to use the weapon was not uncontroversial, even at the time. (Eisenhower's opposition was noted.) That exhibit was abruptly canceled.

The exhibit that opened yesterday provides no context for the display of the Enola Gay. Not even the casualties it caused (more than 140,000 deaths) are noted. The bomber is being displayed, the current museum director said, "in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement." A group of historians protested "such a celebratory exhibit" with a statement that drew hundreds of supporting signatures from scholars, and on Saturday more than a dozen of them, together with numerous Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings, came together. The issue is the construction and reconstruction of history, a question not only of the past, but of the present and the future. If America remembers its first use of nuclear weapons as morally uncomplicated -- or worse, as an event to be celebrated -- its present commitment to a huge nuclear arsenal, and its future readiness, under Bush policies, to build "usable" nukes will seem acceptable.

At issue in how the capture of Saddam Hussein is understood, also, is the construction and reconstruction of history. The melodrama of the seizure should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Saddam Hussein, by this point in the war, had long since stopped being the crucial issue. Hussein was a bloody tyrant whose crimes should be adjudicated, but to assess the meaning of America's war in Iraq with that as the key justification would be like remembering Aug. 6, 1945, only with reference to the atrocities committed by the Japanese imperial army. The United States did not attack Iraq because of Hussein's wickedness (The world is rife with wicked tyrants). It did so because Hussein posed an imminent threat to his neighbors and America, and there was no other way to stop that threat. Additionally, Washington tied Hussein to 9/11 (an Al Qaeda-Iraq meeting in Prague), making the war against Iraq necessary to the war on terrorism.

It is already clear that these justifications were false. Even if Hussein now revealed a stock of chemical or biological agents, the question of "imminence" would remain, because post-invasion investigations have established that no weaponized agents were ready to use. And as for the Hussein connection with 9/11 (What meeting in Prague?), that has been exposed as fantasy.

The war in Iraq is more the result of America's agenda than Hussein's. The violence in Iraq (multiple bombings since Hussein's capture) is a result of Washington's terrible miscalculations. The threat from terrorism (Pakistan's leader nearly assassinated) has been made worse by Bush policies. The structure of American alliances has been needlessly undermined (hence James Baker's mission). America's extreme belligerence is imitated elsewhere (Sharon's faith in "overwhelming force"), making the world far more dangerous. These issues must not be blotted out in the glare of the media celebration of Saddam Hussein's capture. That he was caught in a hole, obviously unrelated to the guerrilla resistance, is a turning point in nothing that matters now: not in restoring order to Iraq, not in rebuilding structures of international law, not in thwarting terrorism, not in stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, not in reconciling the West and the world of Islam.

Such is the damage following from President Bush's war. For what? The question about the Bush war and the Truman decision to use the bomb is the same: Was it necessary? Even if Bush hopes we won't ask that question, history will.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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