ATLANTA - Never underestimate the power of myth. It can solder broken resolve, fuel astounding acts of courage and overwhelm evidence and reason.
That's why the U.S. military struggles so hard to create myths to shore up support for its dubious enterprise in Iraq. Pfc. Jessica Lynch - young and blond - seemed to come straight from central casting to play the part of courageous heroine. Only later did we learn that she never fired a shot. Never mind. The myth served its purpose.
So has the Bush administration's convoluted explanation for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It doesn't hang together logically; its internal contradictions are too great, its fabrications too obvious. Nevertheless, the fanciful tale of a heroic and just America tracking down and killing the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 - or, even if they didn't, who would strike us if they had a chance - served well enough to get President Bush re-elected.
It has also served to keep rank-and-file soldiers and their families back home squarely behind the president. Few soldiers or their families have publicly expressed doubts about the Iraqi mission, despite clear evidence of a con job - from pre-war assurances they would be greeted as liberators to a post-invasion back-door draft that will keep many overseas past their tours.
That could be changing, however. Even compelling myths can wear thin when bleak reality eats away at them every day. That reality reared up several days ago in a so-called town hall meeting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld held with soldiers in Kuwait. The troops peppered Mr. Rumsfeld with pointed questions about inadequate equipment and extensions of duty.
Painful reality hits hard, too, when families see horribly maimed young men and women who will never recover anything resembling a normal life. While the numbers of war dead have been faithfully reported - even as the Bush administration has deflected attention from them - the number of casualties, closing in on 10,000, has received little notice. They have been shuttled quietly away to military hospitals for additional treatment and rehabilitation.
These burdens are borne by a relatively small sliver of the American population - the working class. Enlisted men and women tend to come from households earning between $32,000 and $33,500, according to a 1999 Defense Department study.
It is odd enough that so many working-class Americans have been seduced by Mr. Bush's claims that he's a regular guy looking out for their interests when, in fact, his policies overwhelmingly benefit well-off families and wealthy corporations. It is downright weird that so many of them have been taken in by his story of a just war when their sons and daughters, husbands and wives - not the scions of the wealthy - are the ones paying the ultimate price for it.
This contradiction simply cannot hold much longer, and perhaps it won't have to. Mr. Bush may be planning to use the cover of January elections in Iraq to declare victory and leave - whether the country is stable or not.
But if large numbers of U.S. troops are ordered to stay in Iraq for another four years, as Mr. Rumsfeld recently suggested, you can expect to see signs that the hard truth is puncturing the romantic myth of a just war easily won. Those doing the grieving and dying are unlikely to go on willingly playing their part in the fantasy.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.