For some time now, American political discussion has seemed to revolve around little stock phrases, such as “defining moment” (at the time of the first Gulf War), “the end of history” (at the end of the cold war), “the economy, stupid” (in the early Clinton years), “shock and awe” (as the second Gulf War began). Sometimes there’s a revival of one or another. One of these is “winning hearts and minds.” It became popular during the Vietnam War and is enjoying a vogue in the context of the war in Iraq.

However, the phrase has undergone an interesting evolution. This is reflected in two recent columns, one by Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post, the other by Mark Bowden in the Los Angeles Times. You might suppose that any reflection on hearts and minds would revolve around the elections that are planned for January in Iraq. How, someone might ask, can the United States, now hugely disliked in Iraq, make itself so appealing that Iraqis would vote for a government cut to our specifications? Yet the principal occasion for the two writers’ reflections is instead the military campaign–specifically, the Marines’ assault on Falluja.

Back in the days of Vietnam, the phrase acquired a definite meaning: In a war of pacification, winning battles was not enough; you also had to win the population’s hearts and minds. If you did not, each victory in battle would only be the prelude to further battles, and at the end, when you left, all your work would be washed away by the contrary will of the local people, as happened in Vietnam. It was possible to rule by the sword, as empires have done through the ages, but then you had to be ready to occupy the country indefinitely. Winning hearts and minds, therefore, was not a frill of policy but its foundation, the sine qua non of victory.

In his discussion of the invasion of Falluja, Hoagland begins with a seeming acknowledgment of the Vietnam lesson. He recognizes that the measurements of success cannot merely be the “numbers of insurgents killed or captured, or bomb factories seized or obliterated.” For “as Americans learned to their grief in Vietnam,” such measurements are “elusive and illusory.” We expect to hear at this point that winning hearts and minds is necessary, and Hoagland does not disappoint. But he introduces a variant of the old phrase. Falluja, he says “is part of a battle for minds rather than ‘hearts and minds.'” (The title of the article is “Fighting for Minds in Fallujah.”) What can he mean? What happened to hearts? The answer is that the “immediate objective is to dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining, supporting or tolerating the insurrection,” and “the price they will pay for doing so is being illustrated graphically in the streets of Fallujah.” This isn’t a lesson for the heart–the organ of love, enthusiasm, positive approval. The reaction of the heart–whether Iraqi or American–could only be pity, disgust and indignation. Thus, only the “minds” of “the townspeople” could draw the necessary conclusions, as they survey the corpse-strewn wreckage of their city. In short, the people of Iraq will be stricken with fear, or, to use another word that’s very popular these days, terror. Then they’ll be ready to vote.

Bowden takes up the same theme. “Guerrilla war is always about hearts and minds,” he notes. He acknowledges that most of the guerrillas would have escaped in the long buildup to the attack. Still, he argues, the attack was important. True, it will not influence the “boldest” souls, who are motivated by “nationalism, religion, kinship or ideology.” (All these things were applauded in the recent American election, but they apparently are to have no place in the life of Iraqis.) But “ordinary people” can still be won over. How? He arrives at the same conclusion as Hoagland. “I suspect fear has more to do with influencing them than anything else.” Most Iraqis, “like sensible people everywhere, are looking to see which side is most likely to prevail.” The stake for them is “survival”–depending on which side is more likely to kill them. Bowden wants it to be the United States. The payoff is not any concrete achievement of the attack; it is the spectacle of the subjugated city, which “works as a demonstration of will and power.”

Certainly, the assault on Falluja has given the Iraqi people a lot to look at, and a lot to think about. Some 200,000 people–the great majority of Falluja’s population of some 300,000–were driven out of their city by news of the imminent attack and the US bombardment. No agency of government, US or Iraqi, which turned off the city’s water and electricity in preparation for the assault, offered assistance. Nor did the United Nations Refugee Agency or any other representative of the international community appear. And where are the people now? And what stories are the expelled 200,000 telling the millions of Iraqis among whom they are now mixing? We don’t know. No one seems to be interested.

When the attack came, the first target was Falluja General Hospital. The New York Times explained why: “The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties.” If there were no hospital, there would be no visible casualties; if there were no visible casualties, there would be no international outrage, and all would be well. What of those civilians who remained? No men of military age were permitted to leave during the attack. Remaining civilians were trapped in their apartments with no electricity or water. No one knows how many of them have been killed, and no official group has any plans to find out. The city itself is a ruin. “A drive through the city revealed a picture of utter destruction,” the Independent of Britain reports, “with concrete houses flattened, mosques in ruins, telegraph poles down, power and phone lines hanging slack and rubble and human remains littering the empty streets.”

Both columnists do mention the elections. Bowden says the best hope for Iraq is “for elections to take place,” and Hoagland believes the attack on Falluja will “clear the way” for them. Ballot boxes are to spring up in the tracks of the tanks. Some commentators even refer to “the Sunni heartland.” (As far as I can tell, no one has yet asked how Iraqi “security moms” will vote.) Meanwhile, the insurgency, failing so far to learn its lesson, has opened fronts in other cities, which may soon get the same treatment as Falluja. “They made a wasteland and called it peace,” Tacitus famously said. It was left to the United States, champion of freedom, to update the formula: They made a wasteland and called it democracy.