Five years after the invasion of Iraq was launched under the Hollywood-like sobriquet "shock and awe," so many shocking things have happened that almost nothing about the place shocks anyone any more.
"Awe," on the other hand, is an apt description what the statements of U.S. politicians inspire in a correspondent just back from his fourth Baghdad rotation in the past 12 months.
Speaking to American troops, Vice President Dick Cheney, who can claim no small measure of credit for thinking the whole thing up, called the invasion of Iraq "a successful endeavor." His definition of "successful" seemed to be summed up by his attempt at rallying the troops, many of whom are on second and third deployments which now last more than a year.
"We have no intention of abandoning our friends," he said, "or allowing this country of 170,000 square kilometers to become a staging ground for further attacks against Americans."
No mention was made as to whether or not Cheney acknowledges the now well-documented fact that no attacks against America or Americans were ever staged from Iraq before the invasion.
On the plus side, attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq are down, even if the death toll is on the edge of 4,000. That good news was part of the message of the Republican presumptive presidential candidate John McCain. Although in fairness he has become far more realistic about the state of play than he was a year ago.
Speaking to reporters in Jordan, one of his stops on a tour of several Middle East countries, McCain said: "We are succeeding, but we still have a long way to go," adding, "al Qaeda is on the run, they're not defeated."
The shortfall in his rhetoric is that he seems unable to make a distinction between al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al Qaeda the overall organization, if indeed "organization" is the right word. No one seems to know whether the entity exists as such, or merely as an inspiration, in which case it is far from being on the ropes.
And by the numbers game that is now the favorite way of measuring success, things may look better overall, but the horror is still, if no longer shocking, one that ought to hold us in awe. Even as the politicians were pontificating, a female suicide bomber killed at least 50 worshippers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Twenty-nine more people died in other attacks across Iraq.
The terrible -- and for a reporter, frustrating -- thing about all this are the limits in reporting the events or providing context to the political viewpoint. An improving security situation does not mean access is anything like it was just after the invasion, when journalists could get out in the streets and speak to Iraqis. The levels of fear and animosity have not ebbed, even if the statistics seem to indicate otherwise. Reporters and camera crews still must adhere to the "15-minute rule": stay no longer than 15 minutes in any one place. In some places, indeed many places, even that is far too long.
The exceptions are neighborhoods where a combination of concrete barriers, known as "T-walls" because of their shape, guarded entrances and the presence of Iraqi security forces backed up by and under the close watch of U.S. troops make it safe to spend time. There are more than a few of those now.
Baghdad is no longer so much a capital city as a jigsaw puzzle of uni-ethnic zones.
I have lost count of the number of times I've been to Baghdad in the last 18 years; so many that I used to have a reasonable idea of where I was and how to get from there to wherever else I wanted to go. Now even our drivers often have to ask directions.
And then there is daily the problem of how to deploy the Iraqi crews and reporters on whom we rely to be our eyes and ears in places where Westerners dare not tread. Shiites can go to some areas, Sunnis to others. No matter how well the two sects get along in the office, and it is encouraging to see how well they do, they cannot work together in the field.
In the past five years two of my friends, one of them a very close friend, have been killed in Iraq. Several others have been wounded. Local staff who risk their lives on a daily basis while we come and go have shown me what it really means to be fearless and objective. Some of them too, have been killed or wounded. Others have been forced to flee for their own safety and that of their families, simply because they were found to been working for Western media organizations.
The International Organization for Migration reported this week that one in five of Iraq's pre-invasion population is now either internally displaced or living as a refugee outside the country.
Shock and awe? Indeed, but for all the wrong reasons.