From Ravello to Brook Park: The Lessons of Iraq Hit Home

My summer travels have come to an end with my journey to Ravello. I arrived in Amalfi with my two teenage daughters and took the winding road up to Ravello to visit Gore Vidal. "Call when you arrive at the piazza," Gore had said on the phone, "and someone will meet you to guide you through the three gates to the house." Our guide turned out to be Muzius Gordon Dietzmann -- perhaps the most beautiful man I've ever seen. (If you want to judge for yourself, get the DVD of The Life Aquatic. He plays Anjelica Huston's lover.)

Sitting on Gore's terrace, overlooking one of the most breathtaking spots on earth -- what Gore called the heart of Magna Graecia, the part of southern Italy that was colonized by Greeks and later conquered by Romans -- it felt like we were on top of history. A history of dreams of empire, and of lessons unlearned.

Gore, such a brilliant chronicler of so much of this history, reminded us how foreign to our national character the neocons' imperial dreams are. "Americans have always favored minding our own business," he told us. "From George Washington to John Quincy Adams, the American way has been to avoid imperial adventures." He then cited Adams' famous admonition that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

So it's part of our national DNA to shun Iraqs -- and to want to get out of them.

After watching the sunset over Magna Graecia, we headed to Vittoria's for pasta vongole, pizza, and those amazing, huge Italian heirloom tomatoes -- which, if they ever pass a law restricting us to one food, will be my food of choice. We talked of many things, including the second volume of his memoirs that he is working on every day and his advice to Christina, my 16-year-old, to skip college and get on with life. But, again and again, we kept returning to Iraq.

Vidal, of course, was from the very beginning a passionate critic of the war -- what he called "the unfinished Iraq tragedy" -- and our discussion turned to how every assumption about Iraq and the war on terror is collapsing around us. Forget the obvious ones like WMD and flowers being thrown at our feet, even the central definition of our enemy has had to be revised.

You know we've reached a tipping point when none other than David Brooks writes: "Now we know that story line doesn't fit the facts." Turns out, according to Brooks, the enemy we're fighting is actually "educated," "mobile," and "multilingual." Indeed, 65 percent of anti-western terrorists have gone to college. Brooks takes the logical next step -- one that Vidal has been arguing all along -- and concedes "that democratizing the Middle East, while worthy in itself, may not stem terrorism."

So what the hell are we doing there? It's a question that more and more Americans are asking. Vidal may not spend any time online, but thanks to Daren Simkin, his just-out-of-Dartmouth assistant, he was completely up on what he called "the demographics," including the latest poll showing that 61 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, while 64 percent say that the war has done nothing to make us safer from terrorism.

And those numbers will only get worse as more and more American communities are forced to experience the kind of pain felt in places like Brook Park, Ohio -- which just lost 20 Marine reservists serving with a battalion based there. You can hear the pain and resentment and frustration in the voices of their friends and families -- it's the sound of a country that's had enough. "I felt proud," said the mother of Lance Cpl. William Brett Wightman, one of the fallen Marines, "but also angry about our country being there." "His loss feels so close," said another who knew him. "It's time to bring the soldiers home."

From the beginning, this has been a war light on personal sacrifice for the vast majority of Americans. But something is changing in the way the public is responding -- both to the loss of lives and to the tens of billions being spent.

Even many of those who believe that we should "stay the course" in Iraq are now admitting that doing so will come at a tremendous price. According to military analyst Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic Assessments, winning the war in Iraq will take "at least a decade" of continued U.S. military involvement, cost "hundreds of billions of dollars and will result in longer U.S. casualty rolls."

Does anyone dispute that, if they were given the choice, there is no way the American people would ever go for this? All that's missing now is a leader to step forth and articulate the deeply-ingrained sentiment that's already there. And, at this point, it doesn't even take courage to make this stand -- the public is already behind it. It just takes someone willing to fight the Beltway inertia that continues to paralyze Democrats... leaving them to tread water in the wake of Kerry's failed '04 attempt to out macho the Swaggerer-in-Chief.

Here's a suggestion to all Democrats looking toward '06 and '08: use your August vacation to break away from the DC mindset and take a trip outside the Beltway. Let me recommend a stop in Ravello, Italy. Or, better yet, Brook Park, Ohio.