One could have easily gotten the impression last week that the war in Iraq is being fought to liberate pretty young American girls from Iraqi hospitals.

After a week of news of Iraqis strenuously resisting U.S. efforts to liberate them, the American campaign badly needed something to make war feel good again in the homeland.

The rescue of Jessica Lynch proved just the thing. The cute nineteen-year-old private, who had enlisted in the army so she could get a college education and become a kindergarten teacher when she grows up, instantly became the human face of the U.S. war effort.

With the Jessica story front and centre, the most lethal war machine ever assembled in history could be presented as fresh-faced, innocent and eager to please. Suddenly the war campaign no longer seemed to be about dropping bombs (8,700 in twelve days) relentlessly on a city of five million people, or killing unarmed women and children in Baghdad markets or at army checkpoints; it was about saving sweet, young co-eds from the Iraqi hordes (or, at least, from inferior Iraqi medical treatment.)

It’s great that Jessica is safe. Of course, her war experience is hardly typical. She’ll emerge not only with her body intact but also with international celebrity and, if she wants, talk show spots and modeling contracts. (One can imagine Playboy is already thinking centrefold for a special issue: PoW Girls of Iraq). Needless to say, thousands of other people — mostly on the Iraqi side — will simply end up dead.

But Jessica’s story, milked endlessly by the media, is a reminder of the intense effort going on to ensure America is seen to occupy the moral high ground in this war.

By focussing on the angel-faced, kindergarten-teacher-in-training, we easily forget Jessica is just a tiny cog in the massive U.S. war machine currently invading Iraq, with the stated goal of installing a former American general as military governor. (Not even the White House bothers any longer to pretend this war is about “disarming” Iraq — the goal that Washington put forward for months in trying to line up UN support.) Could imperial ambition be any plainer?

But commentators have kept the focus on the brutality of Saddam Hussein (which no one contests) and tried to muddy the waters about who started this war and therefore who’s to blame for what’s unfolding.

So when U.S. marines gunned down seven unarmed Iraqi women and children in the back of a van last week at a checkpoint in southern Iraq, who was to blame? The van manufacturer? The French? Saddam?

Apparently not the marines — or the U.S. war effort that put them there. TV commentators quickly put the blame on Saddam for inspiring a group of suicide bombers — “terrorists” — who drove up to a military checkpoint a few days earlier, faking surrender.

But wait a minute. The U.S. is invading Iraq, with unquestioned military superiority. Iraqis are fighting back, with whatever means they can find. CNN reported last week that U.S. soldiers discovered one Iraqi, who was apparently surrendering, had a long shard of glass hidden in his mouth. I doubt Saddam put it there.

And I’d bet the shard of glass wasn’t that guy’s weapon of choice, that he would have preferred a laser-guided missile targeted precisely at the White House. But, when desperate, one uses what’s available. Americans would surely do the same if a foreign army were approaching Washington.

Central to the case for American moral superiority is the notion that the U.S. is scrupulously trying to avoid civilian casualties.

“We care about civilians. The other guy doesn’t,” a retired U.S. colonel explained last week on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. I’m sure the U.S. is trying to avoid civilian casualties. Why wouldn’t it? Washington clearly doesn’t want to alienate the civilian population by killing more Iraqis than is absolutely necessary for it to take control of the country.

It’s the taking control of the country that’s the problem. Starting an aggressive war is the crime — the crime out of which all others inevitably flow. As the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal noted years ago: “War is essentially an evil thing … To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Of course, the U.S. has opted out of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, so it won’t have to account for its actions in front of people familiar with these sorts of notions.

Mostly, it just has to explain itself to the CNN anchors, who seem considerably less rigorous. So far, “We’re just trying to save Jessica,” seems to be working out just fine as a defence.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...