The headline reads US Death Toll in Iraq reaches 4,000. I know others have posted on this topic, and ably so, but it is a big subject and I have not posted for awhile. And I feel moved to comment.
A couple of years ago, when U.S. combat deaths reached 2,000, George Bush's press secretary said it was "only a number." Only a number. Well, some could, I suppose, say that the 50,000-plus U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam is "only a number" as, indeed, is the 50-55 million deaths, combat and otherwise, of WWII. Wars are often reduced to statistics, but such statistics as these are made up of individual lives - young lives at that - ended too soon, their dreams unrealized and their families in grief. Those who command the troops know that this sacrifice is sometimes necessary; indeed that in order to win a war such lives must be consigned to the battlefield without regard to the numbers, because the best way to win a war is to fight with all the resolve and all the commitment necessary that the war may end soon. Those who command the troops know this paradox is the awful reality of war.
But what about those who command those who command the troops?
As a nation we are committed to the idea that civilian chiefs should command the officer corps and the troops of our vast armies. That is how it should be; that is what separates us from other nations. But that separation also sets a requirement that the civilian commanders must not only be equally cognizant of the reality of war, they must interact with the world in such a way as to prevent wars in the first place. Yet when civilian chiefs have only their business interests to look after, or their private fantasies of empire to pursue, or their incomplete, naive and even ignorant knowledge of the world to rely upon for their decisions, then the wars of our nation can become needless wastes of not only the lives of our youth, but also a mockery of the grand ambitions of our nation's founders.
It is often remarked upon that Iraq has been a war waged against an enemy who did not attack us on 9-11; that it has been a diversion against the real enemy; a ragtag militia of irregulars hiding in Afghanistan. That is true, but the larger truth is that Iraq is only a continuation of a series of misadventures enacted by armchair generals acting out pathetic dreams of glory and conquest. This is no less tragic for the fact that these maneuvers have been in response to those of "the other side" who also played out their global game of chess without regard for the consequences. The great powers of the west have made the smaller nations of the world proxies in their squabbles against one another for more than a century, leaving their cities free of ruin and destruction while other peoples scrabble in the detritus of their own deferred destinies. Those who sit ensconced in their wood-paneled rooms, enjoying their Great Game, have done so too often in blissful ignorance of the pain and suffering they have caused - not only to their own soldiery, their own people, but also to the nations made they have made pawns; steadfastly ignorant of the bitterness and resentment of sovereign people whose fates have been hijacked by remote superpowers who are icily aloof from the whirlwind they have sown.
The great promise of the West is that people left to govern themselves can check the tendency of the elites in their society to enter misadventures of war. The great liberal movement of our civilization has reached far since the Enlightenment, but not yet far enough. We in the United States cannot change the world until we have changed the course of our own country and empowered political leaders with the resolve to recognize that war is not a game but a grim reality not to be taken lightly or for petty reasons. Some of us are too idealistic for this task, some too accommodating. But others see things as they really are and it is these we must seek out and make the civilian chiefs of our air, sea and land forces. It is hard, much harder than we have imagined or can imagine. Yet we owe it not only to the 4,000 cited in the article, but all those who went before.
It is hard to look at this number "4000" and not see waste - hard because it seems so evident; harder still because our great nation is responsible for it. If it is not to enter the history books as such, then that number must be an incentive to change the way we conduct ourselves in the affairs of civilization.