it's not just Iraq war creating ugly images

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WASHINGTON -- There's a war being fought out there. It's not just being fought by our Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's being fought on the airwaves, in print and over the Internet.

It's the image war. Whoever wins it will end up setting the policy for what I like to call "our current foreign endeavor." Calling the Iraq war our current foreign endeavor is akin to the Daughters of the Confederacy calling the Civil War "that late unpleasantness." It doesn't muddy the sensibilities with the grit, death and cost of war.

Like in real war, both sides of the image war have a battle plan. It's a series of carefully scripted events with all the world watching. If it goes according to plan, someone will win what we used to call "the hearts and minds" of the people. Of course, nothing ever goes exactly according to the script.

A pair of key battles were recently fought in the image war. In one, newly minted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke from the House flanked by portraits of Washington and Lafayette. In the background was the American flag. She was surrounded by children.

As one senior Democrat told me after the speech: "That's a pretty good photo-op. Try to paint us as anti-family now."

The most compelling image from Pelosi's speech appeared to be unscripted. As the children of the House members swarmed around her, Pelosi threw back her head and laughed. I doubt that her script said "laugh here," but if it did, her speechwriters are pretty damn good. The second I saw it, I knew I'd seen it before. It looked like something I once saw my mom do when she was being mobbed by neighborhood urchins.

On the other side of the image war is President Bush, all grim-faced and serious as he told us that he was sending 20,000 more troops into Iraq.

Bush went before the nation and told us that the "times of testing reveal the character of a nation. And throughout our history, Americans have always defied the pessimists and seen our faith in freedom redeemed."

There is no way to laugh about that, so he also showed us his human side a day later when he cried. Tears ran down his cheeks as he gave the Medal of Honor to the parents of a Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, who died in April 2004 after falling on a grenade to save fellow soldiers.

The two images played out in the media -- of Pelosi's laughter and Bush's tears -- are too striking to ignore. Which side do you choose?

Bush's men and women keep promising us that these 20,000 troops are a "surge." A deliberate, directed show of force that will dislodge the enemy and sweep us to victory so that there will be a lot more laughter and a lot fewer tears.

My current iteration as wordsmith makes me think a lot about the words and pictures spewed out in the image war, but I was bred on the hot-rod ethic. Working on cars, I've spent a lot of time trying to dislodge stubborn things, so I'm leery about a surge actually working. It worked a few times, but most of the time a surge of force to something that's stuck resulted in busted parts and a trip to the bank.

I have no idea what will work in Iraq, but I know when I'm being played. I know that Pelosi is playing me too. The image war depends as much on how the image is received as it does on the image itself.

But right now, I want to buy the laughter over the tears.
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