''ONE ANECDOTE from Mosul," said General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the National Defense University earlier this month. ''There was a police recruiting station. Forty young men lined up to sign up to become Iraqi policemen. A vehicle-borne IED explodes -- kills or badly injures 12 of them. The next day, the 28 remaining return to the same spot to sign up to be policemen.
''And that kind of courage," the general told his audience, ''is being shown across Iraq by literally thousands and thousands of Iraqis who want to serve their country."
But there is more than courage drawing men back to the recruiting station, just as there is more than courage that is once again bringing millions of Iraqis to the polls this week, in defiance of Al Qaeda and its threat to kill ''infidels" who vote.
There is memory, too.
From a story reported last year in the Daily Star of Beirut:
''They called all the prisoners out to the courtyard for what they called a 'celebration.' " The speaker is Ibrahim al-Idrissi, head of the Association for Free Prisoners, an organization that documents the deaths of Iraqi political prisoners under the former regime. He is recalling a day in 1982 at a prison in Baghdad.
''We all knew what they meant by 'celebration.' All the prisoners were chained to a pipe that ran the length of the courtyard wall. One prisoner, Amer al-Tikriti, was called out. They said if he didn't tell them everything they wanted to know, they would show him torture like he had never seen. He merely told them he would show them patience like they had never seen.
''This is when they brought out his wife, who was five months pregnant. One of the guards said that if he refused to talk he would get 12 guards to rape his wife until she lost the baby. Amer said nothing. So they did. We were forced to watch. Whenever one of us cast down his eyes, they would beat us."
''Amer's wife didn't lose the baby. So the guard took a knife, cut her belly open and took the baby out with his hands. The woman and child died minutes later. Then the guard used the same knife to cut Amer's throat."
Iraqis are not about to forget where they have been or to yield easily to those who would drag them back there. Threaten to kill them if they vote, and 8 million turn out on Election Day. Blow up a dozen men applying to join the police force, and the survivors are back in line the next morning.
Yes, there is violent death in Iraq today, as there was in the old Iraq. The difference is that then Iraqis were subjects, defenseless against one of the most brutal dictatorships on the planet. Now they are citizens of a nation that is transforming itself into the freest and most progressive democracy the Arab world has ever known. Then, they lived with daily terror and misery, and faced a future that promised only more of the same. Now, Hussein and his lieutenants are on trial, and the future Iraqis face is one they know will be of their own making.
At a time when American Democrats are adamantly proclaiming defeat (''The idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong" -- Howard Dean) and ''realists" deride the quest for Arab freedom (''You're not going to democratize Iraq" -- Brent Scowcroft), the optimism of the Iraqis is marvelous to behold. In a new poll, seven out of 10 Iraqis say their lives are going well; 69 percent expect conditions in the country to improve in the year ahead; three-quarters express confidence in this week's parliamentary elections.
Less than three years ago, Iraq was a place where dissent was crushed, freedom of speech unknown, and civil liberties nonexistent. Today it swirls and bubbles with democratic excitement. Thousands of Iraqis are running for office in this week's election. The sights and sounds of self-government -- political posters, passionate debate, radio and TV commentary, candidates pressing the flesh -- are everywhere. It is an extraordinary moment in Iraqi, and Arab, history.
''The tyrant will soon be gone," President Bush promised the Iraqi people in March 2003. ''The day of your liberation is near." Some cynics still sneer that it was really a war for oil, or for Halliburton, but Iraqis cannot afford such delusions. They know now what liberty means and will not willingly give it up.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.