2,000 Dead, in Context

by Victor Davis Hanson

New York Times

As the aggregate number of American military fatalities in Iraq has crept up over the past 13 months — from 1,000 to 1,500 dead, and now to 2,000 — public support for the war has commensurately declined.With the nightly ghoulish news of improvised explosives and suicide bombers, Americans perhaps do not appreciate that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the effort to establish a democratic government in Iraq have been accomplished at relatively moderate cost — two-thirds of the civilian fatalities incurred four years ago on the first day of the war against terrorism.

Comparative historical arguments, too, are not much welcome in making sense of the tragic military deaths — any more than citing the tens of thousands Americans who perish in traffic accidents each year. And few care to hear that the penultimate battles of a war are often the costliest — like the terrible summer of 1864 that nearly ruined the Army of the Potomac and almost ushered in a Copperhead government eager to stop at any cost the Civil War, without either ending slavery or restoring the Union. The battle for Okinawa was an abject bloodbath that took more than 50,000 American casualties, yet that campaign officially ended less than six weeks before Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender.

Compared with Iraq, America lost almost 17 times more dead in Korea, and 29 times more again in Vietnam — in neither case defeating our enemies nor establishing democracy in a communist north.

Contemporary critics understandably lament our fourth year of war since Sept. 11 in terms of not achieving a victory like World War II in a similar stretch of time. But that is to forget the horrendous nature of such comparison when we remember that America lost 400,000 dead overseas at a time when the country was about half its present size.

There is a variety of explanations why the carnage of history seems to bring today’s public little comfort or perspective about the comparatively moderate costs of Iraq. First, Americans, like most democratic people, can endure fatalities if they believe they come in the pursuit of victory, during a war against an aggressor with a definite beginning and end. That’s why most polls found that about three-quarters of the American people approved of the invasion upon the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad in April 2003.

The public’s anguish for the fewer than 150 lost during that campaign was counterbalanced by the apparently easy victory and the visible signs of enemy capitulation. But between the first 200 fatalities and the 2,000th, a third of those favoring the war changed their minds, now writing off Iraq as a mistake. Perhaps we could summarize this radical transformation as, “I was for my easy removal of Saddam, but not for your bungled and costly postwar reconstruction.”

Part of the explanation is that, like all wars against amorphous insurgencies, the current struggle requires almost constant explanation by the government to show how and why troops are fighting in a necessary cause — and for the nation’s long-term security interests. Unless official spokesmen can continually connect the terrible sacrifices of our youth with the need to establish a consensual government in Iraq that might help to end the old pathology of the Middle East, in which autocracies spawn parasitic anti-Western terrorists, then the TV screen’s images of blown-up American troops become the dominant narrative. The Bush administration, of course, did not help itself by having put forth weapons of mass destruction as the primary reason for the invasion — when the Senate, in bipartisan fashion, had previously authorized the war on a score of other sensible writs.

Yet castigating a sitting president for incurring such losses in even a victorious or worthy cause is hardly new. World War I and its aftermath destroyed Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt’s closest election was his fourth, just as the war was turning for the better in 1944 (a far better fate, remember, than his coalition partner Winston Churchill, who was thrown out of office before the final victory that he had done so much to ensure). Harry Truman wisely did not seek re-election in 1952 in the mess of Korea. Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson and crippled Richard Nixon. Even George H. W. Bush found no lasting thanks for his miraculous victory in the 1991 Gulf war, while Bill Clinton’s decision to tamper Serbian aggression — a victory obtained without the loss of a single American life – gave him no stored political capital when impeachment neared.

Americans are not afraid of wars, and usually win them, but our nature is not militaristic. Generals may become heroes despite the loss of life, but the presidents rarely find much appreciation even in victory.

Television and the global news media have changed the perception of combat fatalities as well. CNN would have shown a very different Iwo Jima — bodies rotting on the beach, and probably no coverage of the flag-raising from Mount Suribachi. It is conventional wisdom now to praise the amazing accomplishment of June 6, 1944. But a few ex tempore editorial comments from Geraldo Rivera or Ted Koppel, reporting live from the bloody hedgerows where the Allied advance stalled not far from the D-Day beaches — a situation rife with intelligence failures, poor equipment and complete surprise at German tactics — might have forced a public outcry to withdraw the forces from the Normandy “debacle” before it became a “quagmire.”

Someone — perhaps Gens. Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower or George Marshall himself — would have been fired as responsible for sending hundred of poorly protected armored vehicles down the narrow wooded lanes of the Bocage to be torched by well-concealed Germans. Subsequent press conferences over underarmored Sherman tanks would have made the present furor over Humvees in Iraq seem minor.

We are also now a different, much more demanding people. Americans have become mostly suburban, at great distance from the bloodletting and routine mayhem on the farms of our ancestors. We feel cheated if we don’t die at 85 in quiet sleep rather than, as in the past, at 50 right on the job. Popular culture demands that we look 40 when we are 60, and with a pill we can transform fatal diseases into the status of mere runny noses. (Admittedly, this same degree of medical technology has kept the death total in Iraq a far smaller percentage of overall casualties than it would have been in any earlier war.)

Our technology is supposed to conquer time and space, and make the nearly impossible seem boringly routine. Ejecting a half-million or so Iraqis from Kuwait halfway around the world in 1991, or stopping Slobodan Milosevic from killing civilians is not just conceivable, but can and should be done almost instantly with few or no American lives lost. With such expectations of perfection, any death becomes a near national catastrophe for nearly 300 million in a way the disasters at the battles of Antietam and Tarawa were for earlier, fewer and poorer Americans.

If our enemies similarly believed in the obsolescence of war that so heartlessly has taken 2,000 of our best young men and women, then we could find solace in our growing intolerance of any battlefield losses. But until the nature of man himself changes, there will be wars that take our youth, and we will be increasingly vexed to explain why we should let them.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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