At the heart of what is often touted as the mightiest empire in world history, it's not a pretty sight at the start of July. After a few chipmunk squeaks from the White House a couple of weeks ago about there being somehow a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq, the news rolls in that it's as bad, if not worse, than ever.

Bomb explosions in Baghdad wipe out scores of ordinary people in a single minute, the motive advertised -- maybe truthfully -- as sectarian hatred, between Shia and Sunni. The entire country, with the exception of the Kurdish provinces in the north, is transfixed with terror, as people flee neighborhoods because they are in the wrong religious faction.

Come to a road block and you don't know whether it's a unit of Iraqi police, a unit of Iraqi killers disguised as police, a group of U.S. soldiers intent on revenge on anyone because one of their buddies just got blown up by a roadside bomb.

The world's headlines are filled with one terrible story after another about atrocities perpetrated by U.S. forces. The latest is particularly stark in its savagery. The U.S. army -- not, it should be emphasized, some pinko columnist or reporter -- says soldiers saw an attractive young Iraqi woman, planned her abduction and rape, then they killed her and tried to burn her body. Finally, they murdered her family. Such are the charges.

Veterans of Vietnam say that in Iraq the situation is analogous to that which prevailed in Vietnam in 1968, when frightful atrocities like My Lai were perpetrated. The troops are over-extended, badly trained, demoralized and know they are risking their lives in a war with no optimistic outcome.

The circumstances that produce soldiers and units capable of war crimes include the following, according to experts in analyzing the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder:

-- The soldiers are involved in operations that inevitably involve attacks on, and slaughter of, civilians.

-- Many have seen comrades killed. In this war, the platoon is the soldier's sole life support and emotional and physical sanctuary. All officers are mistrusted and often despised. A death in the platoon engenders the frenzied bloodlust and cold-blooded slaughters of incidents like that in Haditha.

Indeed the low quality of the officers in the U.S. armed forces as it has developed across the past 20 years has not been sufficiently addressed by the press, and certainly not by the spineless Congress. On the private testimony of many veterans, it has declined steadily, up through the highest ranks, where there are endless examples of the failure of capable leadership.

So America will see, over the years to come, thousands of traumatized soldiers trying to reenter civil society and resume their peacetime lives. Many will never shake off the traumas instilled by months of service in Iraq, and thousands of families and communities, not to mention the soldiers themselves, will be paying the price while the supreme commanders who launched this war will be making money from lectures and memoirs.

And, of course, back in Iraq, there are already thousands who will only remember America as the land that sent soldiers who shot their brothers or sisters or cousins, or tortured them in prison, or destroyed their homes, or leveled their neighborhoods with high explosive from an airplane.

It's tragic to say it, but more and more Iraqis are doing so: Life was better for a large percentage of that country's inhabitants under the dictator Saddam Hussein, horrible though he was. The war of "liberation" launched by Bush in 2003, with the stentorian support of many liberals here, has produced more deaths, more suffering, more blighted lives with zero prospects except emigration for those who can afford it.

Is there any political force here in the United States capable of hastening the end of this tragedy? None is visible. The Republicans are tubthumping, as their best tactic for self-preservation in the fall elections. As a party, with a very few honorable exceptions, the Democrats are doing likewise. The peace movement is ineffective. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.