AUSTIN, Texas -- Remember what it was like just before the war? Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- Colin Powell told us to the pound how many tons of this, that and the other -- Saddam had a reconstituted nuclear program, he had numerous ties to Al Qaeda, and he was an imminent threat.

        As the president put it, we couldn't afford to wait until the smoking gun was a mushroom cloud.

        "To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just another attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand the question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action; fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man. ... .Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect."

        The quote is from Thucydides, the Father of History, writing about the day in 415 B.C. when Athens sent its glorious fleet off to destruction in Sicily. I have not been re-reading Thucydides, but found the quote in a footnote in a splendid little book called "Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy" by Lewis Lapham, in my opinion the most incisive essayist in America.

        I bring this up only because it doesn't look as if anyone else is gonna. John Kerry is running such a cautious campaign that George W. Bush can get away with falsely claiming that Kerry would have supported the war even if he had known then what he knows today. This does, of course, raise the awkward question of whether George W. Bush -- had he known then there were no weapons of mass destruction, no nuclear program, no ties to All Qaeda and no imminent threat -- would have gone to war himself. The one legitimate excuse they always had -- that Saddam Hussein was a miserable s.o.b. -- was the one they specifically rejected before the war.

        It is so painful to read about what is happening in Iraq today (can we put the old dog about how the news media are ignoring "the good news" to rest now?), it is not clear whether we should barf or go blind. With the best will in the world, one cannot pull a positive outlook out of this tragedy. I never advocate despair, but ignoring reality is just as destructive. What. A. Mess.

        Still trying for something useful, I'm on the Lessons to Be Learned program. It took the Bush administration months and months and months of false claims to persuade a majority of the American people that declaring war on a country that had done nothing to us was a necessary thing to do. Almost to the day the fighting started, polls showed most Americans had grave doubts about the enterprise. Then most of us went along because, hell, if our people are over there fighting, then we're behind them.

        What we need to figure out is why so many of us then became so invested in this awful enterprise. As the president says, fool me once, shame on, uh, somebody or other. John Kerry isn't going to remind any of us we were wrong -- that would be rude. (Sooner or later, someone is going to ask Kerry the question he so famously asked about Vietnam: "How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake?" He'd better have an answer ready.) The reason Kerry won't "blame America first," as the Rush Limbaughs would put it, is not just because none of us likes to have our nose rubbed in our mistakes, it's a political calculation. In case you hadn't noticed, John Kerry is winning this presidential race -- that's why he's running such a cautious campaign.

        The patriotic bullying that went on in this country over Iraq should not be forgotten. It is brilliantly described and dissected in Chris Hedges' important little book, "War Is a Force That Gives Life Meaning." In one of the great ironies of the Iraq War, Hedges himself became the victim of the very group-think he had analyzed after starting a speech with the observation, "War in the end is always about betrayal; betrayal of the young by the old, soldiers by politicians, and idealists by cynics." He was booed off the stage.

        Wretched excess always accompanies war fever -- in World War I, "patriots" used to go around kicking dachshunds on the grounds that they were "German dogs." As I have noted elsewhere, people like that do not go around kicking German shepherds.

        Some of that bullying, swaggering tone remains with us, in our politics. To treat with contempt any effort at "nuance" or "sensitivity" -- in one of the most fraught and sensitive situations we've ever been in -- is just ugly know-nothingism. As Republicans used to say to Democrats abut the election debacle in Florida last time, "Get over it."

        To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.