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The day after the fireworks

WE KNOW what July 4th is. What about July 5th? After the fireworks, the music, the rhetoric of freedom -- what then? The party is over. Can we think about what, exactly, we were celebrating? Today's date puts the question of how high-flown American ideals square with the quotidian reality of what the nation is becoming.

No need to rehearse here the red-blue arguments over youth-slaying wars (first Iraq, now Afghanistan?) that are justified by the banner of red, white, and blue. The roster of illusions that pass for national security doctrine -- preventive war, nuclear posture, unilateralism -- has slipped beyond debate by now, with citizens and politicians alike having signed onto one slate or another. The growing US awareness, sharply reflected in polls, that the Iraq war is a loser (or perhaps even wrong) is simultaneously stymied by a mounting drumbeat for more American troops to fight insurgents whose only casus belli is the presence of American troops. From such contradiction we, the people, last night took refuge in the treasured euphoria of patriotic display.

But what about today? In assessing post-celebration realities of the national moment, it may help to recall that America has never been an innocent nation, which is seen in its having constantly sought to appear as one. Indeed, the planting of the flag in self-affirming virtue is how the hallowed standard comes most readily under fire. The most poignant honoring of the flag of which I know is the US Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, the magnificent bronze rendering of the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph of five weary leathernecks and a Navy medic raising the flag on Iwo Jima. That statue, not the Mussolini-like showcase of plinths, pillars, wreaths, and fountains that now despoils the Mall, should be the nation's memorial to World War II.

The Iwo Jima image is sacred precisely because the men lifting up the fallen flag are all but unable to do so. The extremity of their exhaustion, their nearness to defeat, the horrors of what they have been through and of what awaits them are all implied in the painful stretch of limbs, in the rough gear of armored clothing, in the absolute investment each has made in a symbol of something better than himself. Even as the valor of what they did on one beachhead after another is properly honored, the American fighters of the Pacific War were not heroes. The desperation of island combat included exchanged barbarities of which no one would willingly speak for a generation. On the American side, there were foul racism, vengeful refusals to take prisoners, a generalized brutality that extended to a savage air war. To raise the flag at Iwo Jima was to lift the transcendent symbol out of the total hell that the war had become. Few if any men who survived it came home speaking of virtue.

As much as the defeat of militarized Japanese fascism was a victory, the war was also a tragedy, and the Iwo Jima image of desperate men around the flag acknowledges that, too. A new American tragedy is unfolding in Iraq. Not even its supporters pretend to see glory in this war now, and who imagines anything like ''victory" any more? But if an iconic American image of the Iraqi struggle emerges, it will probably not resemble the Iwo Jima statue because amputation and mutilation have become hallmarks of the GI experience of the ''improvised explosive devices" that ambush them. What would the Rosenthal image be if the Marines had lost their arms? For each of the roughly 70 American soldiers killed in the month just past, many others are gravely maimed. What of them?

The ''bursting in air" of July 4th is an implicit glorification of war. On the day after, can we think of those combat survivors who will carry the real cost of the Iraqi war in their bodies forever? And how can we think of those American daughters and sons without thinking of their even more numerous Iraqi sisters and brothers?

What kind of nation does our flag fly over now? Not a less innocent one, because American innocence was never the truth. Not one less reluctant to go to war without a good reason, because we have foolishly credited bad reasons in the past. But now the nation lacks even that. As our president demonstrated last week, we have become a people who wage unending war -- killing and maiming our young ones and theirs -- without being remotely able to say why.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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