The fierce tableau of smoke and flames that US bombs created over Baghdad–a visual message of America’s awesomely destructive power–brought to mind Shelley’s meditation on an ancient ruin, where a fallen pedestal bore the inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Ozymandias’s stern visage lay shattered in the sand. The US strategy of “shock and awe” was intended to intimidate Iraqis into surrendering, but it did not succeed, any more than the ancient ruler’s arrogant proclamation protected his imperium. It is already obvious that Americans were grossly misled by the official expectations of another easy triumph for US power, but there is also the chilling recognition that war planners themselves may have been seduced by the propaganda. Empires, it seems, are eternally vulnerable to hubris.

Americans have become accustomed to quick, low-casualty wars with too-easy claims of virtuous results, but now they’re getting the real thing, bloody and ambiguous and randomly cruel. We were assured that our advanced technologies–precision bombing and digital communications–would let us minimize American casualties and spare Iraqi civilians. But already there have been terrible errors–including, it appears, the bombing of a Baghdad shopping area that left dozens dead or wounded. Such incidents are rapidly eroding any support that may have existed in the Arab world for the US objective of removing Saddam Hussein. Instead, they arouse intense anger against the United States–anger that’s likely to grow regardless of the war’s outcome.

The way these events play out could have a great impact at a time when fundamental questions are already on the table. A Brooklyn musician named Kyp Malone told the New York Times that he mourns the American losses but wonders, “Even if it’s quick and easy, I don’t know that I want to live in a world where America can just roll over any country it wants.” Well said. Do the American people really want an empire? That question is raised by the marching protesters though not much in official circles. Yet under the “defense” strategy enunciated by Bush, Iraq is only the first battlefield of many.

The other big question, voiced by the swelling marches around the world, is about the legitimacy of war itself. In the global outcries, chronicled beginning on page 12, it is possible to discern demands for a new standard of conduct–not pacifism per se but a far more demanding threshold for the use of force, especially by the most powerful nations against weaker ones. Certainly, diverse populations and some leading governments have judged that America’s unilateral war is illegitimate. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginnings of a broader movement that will eventually compel statesmen to reconsider the inherited rules of war among nations and to fashion new ones that are more moral and suitable to a globalizing world.

Continuation of the bloodshed and suffering is not inevitable. An effort is under way to call the United Nations General Assembly into session under the “Uniting for Peace” precedent to seek ways to end the conflict, and while Washington is said to be doing everything it can to block such action, smaller countries have already shown they can stand up to bullying. Other routes, too, must be explored. The alternative is to allow the tragedy to proceed to its awful conclusion.