It had taken much thought and planning that wartime May Day four years ago when George W. Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer, had "embedded" himself on that aircraft carrier days before the President landed. Along with Bob DeServi, a former NBC cameraman and lighting specialist, and Greg Jenkins, a former Fox News television producer, he had planned out every detail of the President’s arrival — as Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times put it then — "even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush’s right shoulder and the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ‘magic hour light,’ which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush."
Before the President could descend jauntily from that plane into the perfect light of a late spring afternoon, and onto what was essentially a movie set, the Abraham Lincoln, which had only recently hit Iraq with 1.6 million pounds of ordnance, had to be stopped just miles short of its home base in San Diego. No one wanted George W. Bush simply to clamber aboard.
Who could forget his Tom-Cruise-style "Top Gun swagger" across that deck — so much commented on in the media in the following days — to the carefully positioned podium where he gave his speech? It was to be the exclamation point on his invasion of choice and provide the first fabulous photos for his presidential campaign to come. Only two things about that moment, that speech, are remembered today — that White House-produced "Mission Accomplished" banner behind him and his announcement, with a flourish, that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
If his landing and speech are today remembered as a woeful moment, an embarrassment, if those fabulous photos never made it into campaign 2004, that was, in part, because of another event — a minor headline — that very same May day: Halfway around the world, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, occupying an elementary school in Fallujah, fired on a crowd of angry Iraqi demonstrators. Perhaps 15 Iraqis died and more were wounded. Two days later, in a second clash, two more Iraqis would die.
On CNN’s website the day after the President’s landing, the main headline read: "Bush calls end to ‘major combat.’" But there was that smaller, secondary headline as well: "U.S. Central Command: Seven hurt in Fallujah grenade attack." Two grenades had been tossed into a U.S. military compound, leaving seven American soldiers slightly injured.
In the months to follow, those two headlines would jostle for dominance, a struggle now long over. Before May 1, 2004 ever rolled around, "mission accomplished" would be a scarlet phrase of shame, useful only to critics of the administration. By that one-year anniversary, Fallujah had morphed into a resistant city that had withstood an assault by the Marines. In November 2004, it would be largely destroyed by American firepower without ever being subdued. Now, the already failed American method of turning largely destroyed Fallujah into a giant "gated" prison camp for its residents is being applied to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where huge walls are slated to rise around 10 or more recalcitrant neighborhoods as part of the President’s Baghdad Security Plan, or "surge."
Four years later, casualty figures are so terrible in Iraq that the government, locked inside the Green Zone in the capital, has, for the first time, refused to reveal the monthly figures to the United Nations, though figures do show a continuing epidemic of assassinations of Iraqi academics and of torture of prisoners, a steep rise in deaths among policemen, and a rise in "honor killings" of women by their own families. Four years later, those few "slightly injured" men of the 82nd Airborne Division have morphed into last week’s 9 dead and 20 wounded from a double-truck-bomb suicide attack on one of that division’s outposts in Diyala Province; over 100 Americans were killed in the month of April alone; 3,350 Americans in all (not including hundreds of "private security contractors").
Four years later, the American military has claimed dramatic success in reducing a wave of sectarian killings in the capital — but only by leaving out of its count the dead from Sunni car/truck/motorcycle-bomb and other suicide-bomb attacks; with over 100 car bombings last month, and similar figures for this one, Sunni militants are outsurging the U.S. surge in Baghdad, making "a mockery of the US and Iraqi security plan," according to BBC reporter Andrew North.
Four years later, not only has the Bush administration’s "reconstruction" of the country been a record of endless uncompleted or ill-completed projects and massive overpayments, not to speak of financial thievery, but even the projects once proclaimed "successes" turn out, according to inspectors from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, to be disasters "no longer operating as planned"; the biggest business boom in a country in which unemployment is sky-high may be "a run on concrete barriers" for security, which are so in demand that sometimes they "are not fully dry when military engineering units pick them up"; electricity availability and potable water supplies are worse than ever; childhood malnutrition is on the rise; no one even mentions Iraqi oil production which remains well below the worst days of Saddam Hussein and billions of dollars of which are being siphoned off onto the black market.
Four years later, U.S. prisons, one of the few reconstruction success stories in Iraq, are chock-a-block full, holding 18,000 or more Iraqis in what are essentially terrorist-producing factories; Iraq has the worst refugee problem (internal and external) on the planet with perhaps 4 million people in a population of 25 million already displaced from their homes (202 of whom were admitted to the United States in 2006); the Iraqi government inside the Green Zone does not fully control a single province of the country, while its legislators are planning to take a two-month summer "vacation"; a State Department report on terrorism just released shows a rise of 25% in terrorist attacks globally, and 45% of these attacks were in Iraq; 80% of Iraqis oppose the U.S. presence in their country; 64% of Americans now want a timetable for a 2008 withdrawal; and the President’s approval rating fell to its lowest point, 28%, in the most recent Harris poll, which had the Vice President at a similarly record-setting 25%.
During this grueling, destructive downward spiral through the very gates of hell, whose end is not faintly in sight, the administration’s war words and imagery have, unsurprisingly, undergone continual change as well. In the course of these last years, the "turning points," "tipping points," "milestones," and "landmarks" on the road to Iraqi democracy and freedom have turned into modest marks on surveyor’s yardsticks ("benchmarks"), not one of which can be met by the woeful Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The "magic hour light" of May 2003 has disappeared, along with those glorious photos from the deck of the carrier. The sort of descriptions you see today, as in a recent David Ignatius column in the Washington Post, sound more like this: "Republicans voice the bitterness and frustration of people chained to the hull of a sinking ship." (The USS George W. Bush, undoubtedly.) Oh, and the President and what’s left of his tattered administration have stopped filming on a Top Gun-style movie set and seem now to be intent on remaking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This White House has plunged Iraq and the world into the geopolitical equivalent of a blood-and-gore exploitation film that simply won’t end. Call that "Mission Accomplished"!