Rupert Cornwell: President Bush and the shadow of a just war

No wonder this president has tried to cloak his Iraq adventure in the Second World War's mantle

29 May 2004

Those malign political gods who have now turned against George Bush have timed matters to perfection. Today the President dedicates the new Second World War memorial in Washington, the imperial city's latest monument to great campaigns past. Congress approved the project exactly a decade ago - but who could have imagined then that the most glorious war of America's modern history would be remembered while it is bogged down in a misconceived and utterly inglorious conflict in Iraq that may well drive Mr Bush from the White House?

Frankly, as memorials go, this one is no great shakes. It is a circular plaza thrust down between the great needle of the Washington monument and the Lincoln memorial at the western end of the Mall. The design is bland, oddly banal, in another setting the sort of place where office workers would spend their lunch break on a hot summer's day, dangling their toes in fountain pools as they eat their sandwiches. There is none of the intimacy and poignancy of the Vietnam memorial close by. Nor does the memorial convey the sweep and epic grandeur of the greatest conflict of all, in which 16 million Americans fought.

These days they are old men, dying at the rate of 1,000 a day. Only four million are still alive, and who is to grudge this belated tribute to the 100,000 or so veterans expected to gather on the Mall today? After all, the Second World War is etched in our minds as the ultimate just war, when the great democracies stood their ground and freed the world from Nazism, fascism and the aggression of imperial Japan. True, this vision conveniently omits such episodes as Hiroshima and Dresden, and the fact that the US and Britain fought alongside Stalin's Soviet Union, the most murderous tyranny in history. But no war is perfect. No wonder this president has tried to cloak his Iraq adventure in the Second World War's mantle.

George Bush makes no secret of his historical role model. Conspicuous in his Oval Office, alongside the obligatory family photographs, is a bust of Winston Churchill. George Bush the father flew 58 combat missions in the Second World War. The son took a pass on Vietnam, the war of his generation. Then came 11 September 2001, and the Twin Towers were the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century.

Bush the younger sold Iraq as part of his own "just war", this one against terrorism, in which good would triumph over evil just as it had 60 years ago. Once Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction failed to turn up, Iraq was presented as another noble exercise to liberate an oppressed people, in which the US would lead them to democracy, just as in Germany and Japan half a century before.

But it hasn't worked out that way. All the parallels fostered by Mr Bush have been revealed as the shams they are. In the Second World War, arriving GIs were greeted as liberators. Blink and you missed the "honeymoon" in Iraq. A year after the President hubristically proclaimed "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of an aircraft carrier, US troops are fighting a spreading guerrilla insurgency, reviled as occupiers by the bulk of the population. For the rest of the world - and for many already dubious Americans too - Abu Ghraib has now dispelled the notion that the US is the good guy in this particular fight.

The Second World War involved the entire population. For Americans, those who fought it and their families at home remain "the greatest generation". It was the war of "Rosie the Riveter", the women who worked in factories on the home front. Petrol was rationed and tin cans collected. This was a war effort in which everyone did their bit.

No such sacrifices have been sought by the younger Bush. This time around, the sacred duty of Americans has been to go on a collective spending binge to lift the country out of recession. War, what war? "Live your lives and hug your children," was the President's demand of the people as his administration sent armies to Afghanistan and Iraq. The nearest thing to hardship is the interminable queuing at airport security.

But now those malign gods have decreed that the whole misguided Iraq enterprise should be laid bare, at the very moment the US commemorates the true "just war" in which it saved the world. Mr Bush's election handlers hope this weekend's ceremonies in Washington and the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings will stiffen the national spine to "stay the course" in Iraq. More likely, as they honour these old men with their medals and their memories, Americans will realise this Iraq war, conceived of a strange cocktail of ignorance, idealism, arrogance and Bush family pride, is the opposite of what their country stands for.