The Terrible Arithmetic

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

There is a certain number of Iraqi terrorists that either need to give up, reconsider their militancy, leave the country, or be killed for there to be peace and the emergence of a consensual government. Given the fiery sermons of al Sadr, the cadres of Baathist hold-outs, the horrific assassination of peace-loving Iraqi officials, and the constant bombing of American soldiers, it may well require the latter ultimate fate. We do not know the exact number of enemies that must be eliminated, but only that it will grow exponentially—along with Iraqi and coalition deaths—unless we act decisively.

By the same token, there are a limited number of Americans that we can allow to be killed in Iraq before the American people tire of it all—who nearly three years after watching the bodies freefall from the World Trade Center on 9-11 are forgetting their immediate peril from al Qaedists and the rogue governments that enable such terrorists to operate. At some critical point to come, Americans will no longer see the sacrifice of their precious youth as worth the effort in Iraq to ensure consensual government and our own long-term security—and at that point they will simply say no mas.

Again, we do not know how many fatalities we as a nation can endure, only that in our present postmodern society the number for good or evil is far lower than was true in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. Our grandfathers rightly accepted that 600 might be lost in a terrible night on Okinawa if such a sacrifice meant freedom from Japanese militarism; we wrongly believe that the present 600 combat dead this past year were either not worth the effort, all preventable, or in no real way connected to the safety of 300 million at home. My rough guess is that once the toll exceeds 1,000 combat dead, the United States will be seriously looking for a rapid exit strategy regardless of the dire circumstances involved.

So there is a terrible race of sorts in which the Americans need to find those who wish to destroy evil-doers, dispatch them, and do so before reaching a tipping point after which the public back home will consider Iraq a failure. Our enemies, of course, fathom this calculus, and thus worry more about killing Americans than losing their own—inasmuch as they believe that there are far more terrorists and rebels that can be killed than there are Americans that can die. We who value life as much as they profess allegiance to death rightly accept this terrible imbalance and thus are understandably frantic to find a way to target the insurrectionists without losing any more of our own.

There are other variables in the equation as well. One, of course, is that every time the Americans go on the offensive whether in Fallujah, Karbalah, or Najef, they suffer fewer casualties and take out more enemies than when on static patrol in thin-skinned Humvees. Second, Iraqi indigenous forces only come out of the shadows to help Americans kill the terrorists when they are assured that they have a very good chance of ending up on the winning side and that our enormous air and artillery power will be used to support them rather than remain idle and untapped. Third, each militant killed encourages two moderates to join the efforts to stabilize Iraq—just as each militant reprieved ensures two more of like kind to flock to the mayhem. Fourth, the world is watching places like Najef and Karbalah, and among the audience are thousands of would-be jihadists who from their daily pabulum of al Jazeera are right now sizing up their chances of streaming into the fray to find some final meaning, after the disappointment of anonymity and failure in their real miserable lives. Those would-be martyrs who once were in the same quandary in Pakistan rued their hajj to Tora Bora; and we must ensure that the same fate is true for wannabes when they reach Iraq. Many talk of paradise and all the bright-eyed mystical virgins waiting there; but actually very, very few insist that they just can’t wait for old age to get there—once they understand the wages of their decision to shoot Americans.

So as these parameters of action crystallize in Iraq, it is important that the US military be allowed to go on the offensive and take out the obstacles to democratic reform before we lose all public support for the war. Only that path of audacity right now will both curtail the number of our fatalities, increase the enemies’ losses, and ensure that those who have already died did so for a cause that proved successful and gave freedom for millions abroad and security for those back home.

Thus George Bush reckons how to save as many Americans as possible in this war even as his enemies in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Pakistan figure out how many more they need to kill to send us home. Remember, our enemies are not fighting over territory—as we did to ensure a free Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor do they wish to provide security for global commerce, international cooperation, and free travel, as is our mission. No, they simply wish to kill us; they like shooting our diplomats in Jordan; cutting off our heads in Iraq and Pakistan; blowing us up in Manhattan and Washington; and gunning us down in the shadows.

For these hooded merchants of death, killing, not Islam, is their only religion; death is what they wish for us; and death is the only currency they trade in. For those of us in America who value civilization over barbarism and life over death, pay close attention as this terrible arithmetic works itself out in the next few weeks in wretched places like Najef, Karbalah, and Tikrit.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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