Last week the media made much of the 1,000th US casualty in Iraq, while trying to explain how impossible it is to identify which of the 20 US soldiers who had died last week was the actual 1,000th, as if it even matters.

In fact, as the Bush administration asserted, the 1,000 mark has little meaning. The true 1,000th mark was passed in July, when the death toll of both US and Coalition soldiers–British, Polish, Italian, Danish, Spanish, Ukrainian, and a host of other countries–is added together, as it should be. Neither the Bush administration, embarrassed by its failures, nor the US press, revealing a general American narcissism and chauvinism, felt the need to report that grim milestone.

Nor was there much attention paid to the increase in frequency of US deaths: 20 in one week takes the average US death rate in Iraq from 2 soldiers per day up to 3 per day. Meanwhile, the media’s superficial narrative moved easily from reporting on the destruction of Najaf to the nightly bombing of Fallujah, but didn’t find a broader reason for it beyond Pentagon reassurances that it was targeting terrorists in specific buildings. In fact, the bombing of targets in Fallujah was clearly in retaliation for the increase in roadside bombing attacks against US troops, including an attack near Fallujah early in the week that killed 7 US Marines and 3 Iraqi security personnel.

Having given up the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Samarra, and nearly all of al-Anbar Province and most of Salahaddin and Diyala Provinces to the guerrillas (which equals nearly half of all Iraqi territory) the US military has fallen back on the Clinton-era policy of running air raids over hostile territory and dropping bombs in heavily populated city blocks based on scanty intelligence. The Bush administration invaded Iraq with the excuse that weapons of mass destruction would be found, but the reality was no match for fantasies constructed by Iraqi exiled informants. Now, as Reuters TV and wire service reporters track down the civilian casualties of US air raids in the hospitals of Fallujah and Tal Afar, history repeats itself.

How long US forces in Iraq can continue to aggressively attack cities and massacre large numbers of women and children in the search for a few so-called “foreign terrorists” is dependent on three things: the discontent of a segment of the US military who feel that they’re not accomplishing anything (indeed, seeing first hand that these tactics are making matters worse, not better), the discontent of the American populace confronting a quagmire in Iraq that will demand an eventual conscription of America’s youth to die for its broken foreign policy, and the misery of the Iraqi people, which will continue to feed the Iraqi guerrilla forces. All of these things are growing stronger, even as the US elite is struggling to find ways to address the mess in Iraq.

Which leads one to ask what can be done to stop this spiral of violence. The Bush administration’s answer is to use the carrot-and-stick approach, consistent with G.W.’s professed admiration of Theodore Roosevelt: beat the living daylights out of the guerrillas (regardless of how many innocents get in the way) and then hope that the survivors will welcome a few reconstruction projects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Najaf, where the Pentagon met universal dismay over the destruction of Najaf’s old city, its center of commerce and tourism, with fatuous assurances of reconstruction aid, as if buildings, books, and works of art that are over 1,000 year old can be easily replaced.

John Kerry’s vision for Iraq is not much better. He will rely on his nonexistent personal charisma to persuade other nations to join us in the Iraq quagmire–a laughable notion that appears expediently cynical at best and completely disconnected from reality at worst. What’s missing is a true, step-by-step, practical plan.

It’s not difficult to enumerate the problems, and not as hard to list the next steps as the US media often asserts. The first step is to stop attacking Iraqi cities. Period. No loophole in international law allows an occupying power to punish civilians for the battlefield tactics of a nationalist guerrilla movement. To make a pledge to adhere to international law, the Geneva Conventions, and to put that into practice is the most important next step in Iraq.

After that, the US government must stop declaring that the guerrillas are foreign terrorists, recognize them as a predominantly Sunni nationalist force, and begin face-to-face negotiations. The Bush administration, hampered by its ideological hostility to any form of negotiation, is ill suited for this task. Having built their identity and wagered their success on the progress of the war on terrorism, the Bush ideologues will cling forever to a shining lie; hence, the appalling attack on the city of Tal Afar in the mistaken assumption that foreign terrorists are sneaking across the border through Tal Afar to attack Mosul. Indeed, the guerrilla forces are making a bid for Iraq’s third largest city, but they have no need of reinforcements from Syria as long as the US continues to kill their wives and children in Fallujah, Baqubah, Samarra, Ramadi, and dozens of other towns and cities throughout the Sunni triangle.

Of course, negotiations would lead in a direction greatly feared by the Bush administration: towards demands for Sunni political power in Iraq. Democracy is not the goal of the Sunni leadership, not perhaps even the goal of the foot soldiers in the guerrilla army, which some analysts now estimate may exceed 100,000 men. Although many Sunni tribes enjoyed favor under Saddam–just as many Sunnis were oppressed–they all fear becoming the minority group in a nation of Shiites who were all persecuted by Saddam Hussein.

Balancing fears and aspirations, secular and religious priorities, and sectarian differences is a tricky task, and one that the US has taken up elsewhere in the world without complete success. In the Balkans, where whole towns and regions have suffered the uprooting of minority populations and sectarian violence, the US didn’t have to go it alone; it was part of a coalition of nations who sought some kind of solution, however imperfect.

Acknowledging that this is the future of Iraq is necessary, although it reveals how truly foolish the war itself has been: the project of childish men with naive and unattainable goals. But the US must grow up fast if history is to move forward and not repeat itself in an endless, inward spiral of violence.