Dancing the War Away

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

January 22, 2005

Watching the inaugural ceremonies yesterday reminded me of the scenes near the end of "The Godfather" in which a solemn occasion (a baptism in the movie) is interspersed with a series of spectacularly violent murders.

Even as President Bush was taking the oath of office and delivering his Inaugural Address beneath the clear, cold skies of Washington, the news wires were churning out stories about the tragic mayhem in Iraq. There is no end in sight to the carnage, which was unleashed nearly two years ago by President Bush's decision to launch this wholly unnecessary war, one of the worst presidential decisions in American history.

Incredibly, with more than 1,360 American troops dead and more than 10,000 wounded, and with scores of thousands of Iraqis dead and wounded, the president never once mentioned the word Iraq in his Inaugural Address. He avoided all but the most general references to the war. Lyndon Johnson used to agonize over the war that unraveled his presidency. Mr. Bush, riding the crest of his re-election wave, seems not to be similarly bothered.

In January 1945, with World War II still raging, Franklin Roosevelt insisted on a low-key inauguration. Already gravely ill, he began his address by saying, "Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief."

Times have changed. President Bush and his equally tone-deaf supporters spent the past few days partying hard while Americans, Iraqis and others continued to suffer and die in the Iraq conflagration. Nothing was too good for the princes and princesses of the new American plutocracy. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on fireworks, cocktail receptions, gala dinners and sumptuous balls.

Ten thousand people, including the president and Laura Bush, turned out Wednesday night for the Black Tie and Boots Ball. According to The Associated Press, one of the guests, Lorian Sessions of San Antonio, "donned a new pair of black kangaroo boots, decorated with a white star and embroidery, with an aqua-colored mink wrap she bought on sale at Saks."

An article in The Washington Post mentioned a peace activist who complained that the money lavished on the balls would have been better spent on body armor for under-equipped troops in Iraq.

As the well-heeled Bush crowd was laughing and dancing in tuxedos and designer gowns, the situation in Iraq was deteriorating to new levels of horror. The Black Tie and Boots Ball was held on the same day that 26 people were killed in five powerful car and truck bombs in Baghdad. With the elections just a week and a half away, American commanders, according to John F. Burns of The Times, are seeking "to prepare public opinion in Iraq and abroad for one of the bloodiest chapters in the war so far."

A photo at the end of Mr. Burns's article showed an Iraqi National Guard member carrying the remains of a suicide bomber in a garbage bag.

The disconnect between the over-the-top celebrations in Washington and the hideous reality of Iraq does not in any way surprise me. It's exactly what we should expect from the president and his supporters, who seem always to exist in a fantasy realm far removed from such ugly realities as war and suffering. In that realm you can start wars without having to deal with the consequences of them. You don't even have to pay for them. You can put them on a credit card.

People traveling in the real world may see Iraq as a place where bombings, kidnappings and assassinations are an integral part of daily life; where police officers are blown to pieces as they line up for their pay; where innocent men, women and children are slain by the thousands for no good reason; where cities like Falluja are leveled in order to save them; where America's overwhelming superiority in firepower has not been enough to win the war; and where the upcoming elections seem very much like a joke since many of the candidates have to keep their identities secret and the locations of many polling places remain undisclosed.

People traveling in the real world may see Iraq that way. But in the fantasy-laden Bush realm, Iraq is a place where freedom is on the march. So why not raise a toast to freedom, and dance the night away.