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November 6, 2007

War without heroes and villains

Roy Meachum

Most Americans prefer personalized war. They need heroes to admire; but most of all they want villains to hate. Hitler was a perfect example. He was a demon long before the United States entered World War II.

Keeping himself alive until Russian forces were in Berlin's suburbs, the Nazi leader provided the momentum for the burning anger necessary for the Allies to completely finish the job. That was the first war ever to be fought under the media's full gaze.

No television yet, but newsreels for the movies and radio for more immediate access. Edward R. Murrow's reports from bombed London swayed public opinion away from the Axis; Pearl Harbor finished the job.

In the early World War II days, "white propaganda," as it was termed, came up with a youthful Army Air Force pilot who may or may not have sacrificed his life taking out a Japanese battleship. Audie Murphy's gallantry won the Medal of Honor fairly for feats he really performed, but America's publicity machine turned out more. The kid from Oklahoma was a genuine hero; the pilot's brave deed was later seriously questioned by the facts.

Iraq has provided no Lieutenant Murphys; the machine tried. A West Virginia woman appeared the perfect material; she was young and not hard on the eyes.

Captured by the enemy during a withering firefight, she was history's classic damsel in distress. We were told Army Special Forces swept behind Iraqi lines to pluck her from a hospital where, it was suggested, she might be in danger of rape, or worse. Her arrival at Washington's Walter Reed Hospital was celebrated throughout the nation.

The truth, as we read and heard, was something else. From various sources, including the lady herself, she was not a heroine of the firefight; she barely participated before being hauled off to the hospital, where her treatment was considerably different from hostile. One of her Iraqi doctors, according to a version, arranged her rescue.

Then there was the depiction of the former NFL star's death. Enlisting in the Army while turning down a multi-million dollar contract, he was a splendid role model for the country's youth. His brother joined him. Their pictures in Special Forces' green berets were plastered all over the land.

When he died, during an encounter with insurgents, we were informed he risked his life to save his comrades; his family received the Silver Star. As you know, his slaying came from friendly fire, as the Army whimsically calls it.

But what is friendly about anything that costs U.S. lives?

The really significant feat, we were informed at the start, was the toppling of Saddam Hussein and his resulting execution. He had been a villain in Americans' eyes ever since Desert Storm, the war led by George H. W. Bush, the present president's presidential father.

Sweeping Saddam out of Kuwait and all its riches proved a cakewalk and ended in a "turkey shoot," the phrase used by triumphant American generals. Left to their own devices, they would have followed Iraq's vaunted Presidential Guard all the way to Baghdad and hauled the dictator off his throne by his heels.

But wiser heads, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell's, prevailed. General Powell foresaw the murderous mess that characterizes the present war, started and maintained by the racist mindset that "shock and awe" would bring Iraqis to their knees. It didn't. Instead it brought them out into the streets armed with weapons taken from Saddam's arsenal.

The insurgency became bloodier.

The other villain in the area is a Saudi, Osama bin Laden. He remains on the loose. Since the Afghanistan invasion, we have heard of no major movements to capture him. He's disappeared, except for tapes released to international media. Having joined his friends and former followers in the Taliban, a theory holds, the Islamic boogey man slipped into Pakistan. He remains there, protected by the country's intelligence services.

Cynics say bin Laden receives financial support from his friends and family back in Saudi Arabia. But his big protector, we are told, is the president of Pakistan, the White House's Great Islamic Hope.

President Pervez Musharraf has received, according to reports, some 11 billions of U.S. dollars; he would not be the first Third World leader to play both America and its enemies against each other.

As you know, Pakistan was ordered under martial law this weekend. The immediate elections promised Washington have been postponed, indefinitely. The prominent figures in the country's democratic movement thrown into jail; it is unclear whether the chief justice and most of his colleagues are under house arrest or behind bars.

These moves will spawn further resistance against the Musharraf regime, perhaps opening the door for Islamic extremists to take over. There have been incidents already. That fear curtails any western supported coup attempt.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf is still an official hero but he smells more and more like a villain. He might just turn out to be the dominant figure the Iraq war needs. At least, we could pin a tail on someone. Now we can't: neither hero nor villain. Pakistan's president is a candidate for both labels.

We will see.

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