One of the things that made Saddam stand out as a dictator among dictators was that he liked to partake in his tortures, not just command them from above. In one video recording, he sits and watches as one of his generals is devoured alive by Dobermans. Saddam and his criminal clique also had a penchant for ingenuity. Maybe it’s only after torturing tens upon tens of thousands of human beings that you decide to purchase an industrial shredder. Most were lowered in head first, but the unblessed few condemned to maximum suffering for some reason were lowered in feet first. Curiously, they filmed this barbarism too.

If the anti-war movement had gotten its way, the shredders would still be shredding and 24 million would be languishing in a giant fascist prison. The fact that crimes against humanity were taking place in Iraq as the war debates raged was no secret, but the anti-war movement bravely persevered.

This it seems was the price they were willing to pay to avoid the “millions” of refugees, the “thousands” of Iraqi casualties, the famines, the bloody battle for Baghdad, the Kurdish-Sunni-Shiite war, the dozens of new al-Qaeda attacks against America, the unbridled fury on the Arab streets and the toppling of moderate Arab governments – all of which they assured us would accompany the war.

Not one of their fearsome doomsday scenarios, however, came to pass.

Last February, the Nexus published an exchange between another student and me about the “moral calculus” necessary to justify war. Now might be a good time to revisit that: Over the course of three weeks and at a cost of fewer than 200 soldiers, we destroyed one of history’s most abominable tyrannies, liberated 24 million and put a nation condemned to generations of servitude on a hopeful path to freedom and prosperity. Americans find it disconcerting to see hundreds of Iraqis marching boisterously in the streets and demanding jobs and elections, until they recall this is the first time in 30 years that doing so hasn’t guaranteed a midnight knock. Aside from Israeli Arabs, Iraqis are currently the only free Arab population. Yet despite all this, the UCSB Student Coalition for Peace writes in an e-mail after the war, “That’s not victory, that’s tragedy.”

No one in our administration harbored any illusions about the difficulties of restoring civilization where there was despotism. It will take decades before Iraq resembles anything we can call democracy, and there will be many missteps. But if any force on earth is capable of realizing this task, it is the United States. Contrary to the canards of unilateralism, soldiers from more than 20 nations have joined us on the ground in Iraq to accomplish this historic undertaking. All 240 of Iraq’s hospitals have been reopened, hundreds of newspapers clutter the newsstands, the oil fields are pumping away, nearly 80,000 jobs have been created, 45 out of 55 of the former regime’s top leaders have been captured and Saddam is chilling in prison. In 2002, Saddam spent $16 million on healthcare. Last year, we spent $422 million, 26 times more. Poll after poll shows that Iraqis are optimistic about life after Saddam. Is this not progress?

Banalities like workshops on constitutional law, school openings and statistics on electricity generation may not grab headlines like museum looters or suicide car bombers do, but they represent the gradual return of dignity to a people long ignored and trampled upon.

In the words of Christopher Hitchens, reporting from Baghdad, “What is happening in today’s Iraq is something more like a social and political revolution than a military occupation.” The Middle East is the one region on earth stuck in a preliberal age, and it is no surprise that so many problems arise there. It is both our luck and our burden to live in times in which the governing council in Iraq and the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan embark upon the region’s first two projects toward modernity.

Joey Tartakovsky is a Daily Nexus columnist.