illustration: Viktor Koen
flash animation: Don Rainwater
We are a nation at warï¿½globallyï¿½against terrorism. But here at home, except for extra security at travel terminals, one could hardly guess it.
There is no war footing to be seen. Washington has not mobilized Americans on the home front. President Bush has made it clear that he wants it that way.
Yet the war is real. And the sacrifices are being borne solely by the roughly 160,000 men and women in uniform who are riskingï¿½and losingï¿½their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. And by their grieving and worried families. National politicians, though they lavish the country’s military population with warm rhetoric in public, privately do not regard them as a voting bloc to worry about.
As of early this week, 1,918 American soldiers have died in Iraq and another 236 in Afghanistan, for a total of 2,154. The count of wounded has passed 15,000ï¿½more than 14,000 of them in Iraq. There is no official count of Iraqi civilian deaths in this war, but independent surveys put the death figure somewhere between 26,000 and 30,000. No reliable casualty figures on Afghan civilians are available.
While our soldiers die, the policies of the Bush administration call for virtually no sacrifices or commitments from the 300 million other Americans. To the contrary, they are told that their taxes will continue to be reducedï¿½even as the war goes on, costing upwards of $5 billion each month.
The closest President Bush has come to seeking a nationwide commitment was a speech in which he asked Americans to use the Fourth of July to “find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom by flying the flag, sending a letter to our troops in the field, or helping the military family down the street.” A professor emeritus of military sociology at Northwestern University, Charles Moskos, calls this “Patriotism Lite.” “That’s what we’re experiencing now in both political parties,” he was quoted as saying in a recent
New York Times story. “The political leaders are afraid to ask the public for any real sacrifice . . . ”
So what does this failure to seek shared sacrifice mean? It seems to mean that our leadersï¿½not only the Republicans but the Democrats, who followed meekly behindï¿½knew that if they had spoken candidly to the public and told them that the threat from Iraq was not only not imminent but minimal and that therefore this was not a war of necessity but one of choice for other, unexplained reasons, then voters might have been aroused enough to rally and block the White House’s rush to invasion. This would indicate that President Bush was convinced that, after the invasion, continued support for his crusade had to be conditioned on demanding little from the public. Meanwhile, our soldiers are being killed and crippled every day. In our system of democracy, this leaps out as a perversion. Are these volunteer men and women in uniform to be regarded simply as mercenaries? Or do we care about them?
This, therefore, has to be the strangest war ever declared by a United States president. Mr. Bush, who is commander in chief, will not attend military funerals. He will not speak with mourning family members who have publicly criticized his war policies. He gives speeches only to audiences of supporters carefully selected by his handlers. He has chosen to be sealed off from any dissenter. Even Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War came out of his bubble to talk to protesters at least once, at the Lincoln Memorial.
Also, the president keeps saying “we” must not withdraw precipitously from the war, when he should be saying “they”ï¿½the soldiers who are actually fighting the war and living, or dying, amid its bestialities. In his life, George W. Bush has never been in war of any kind. Neither have the civilians in his close circle, who, with him, conceived the Iraq war and told America that with the “shock and awe” blitzkrieg they had planned, it was going to be, well, easy.
Nothing has turned out the way these neoconservatives said it would. And they have never brought themselves to utter even a modest “excuse me.” A great nation has to have enough character and spine to be able to say “I’m sorry.” Our current leaders have to be tall enough to admit their mistakesï¿½or be judged small by history. At the moment, they are sticking to their guns, in a manner of speaking.
In Iraq right now, little is stable. With a newly drafted, American-guided Iraqi constitution having alienated the Sunni portion of the population and left other key issues vague, such as the formula for how oil revenues would be shared among the competing blocs, the threat of an Iraqi civil war looms once more. This comes as no surprise to anyone who took a glance at Iraqi history before we went to war. That was another piece of the truth the Bush White House ignored as it broke all speed limits in getting the shooting started in March 2003.
Let us remember wistfully those Pentagon generals who, before the war, said openly that we were going into Iraq with too few troops. They warned that twice the numberï¿½250,000 to 300,000ï¿½would be needed if, after the initial invasion, we hoped to secure Iraq and keep the peace while the Iraqis struggled through their tribal hatreds toward a form of life, democracy, that they had never known but that Bush promised would be the end result. But Bush and his war planners rudely dismissed the generals’ cautions. So here we are, as a nation, with a failed, unreal crusade, yet feeling responsible for the mess our leaders have created and therefore realizing that we can’t just walk out of Iraq tomorrow and slam the door behind us.
But we canï¿½and shouldï¿½immediately produce a clearly stated plan that will set calendar goals for a phased withdrawal. The Iraqis will then know we are serious about not allowing this chaos to continue indefinitely. They, with our help, will have to speed up the training of their new army and police forces. And maybe they will have to ask their allies in the Middle East, Arab and non-Arab, to help them militarily.
President Bush, if he has any hope of being remembered as a leader who arrived eventually at reality and wisdom, will have to stop scorning as unpatriotic everyone who proposes an exit strategy. He describes such dissentersï¿½that would include myselfï¿½as misguided Americans who want to “cut and run” and thus help the terrorists. As bold and brave as he may imagine himself, the truly brave are those on the battlefield, who were sent there by him. (Humility, he seems to forget, is another trait that marks a great leader.)
Let us honor these men and women by giving them a blueprint for getting them home. We cannot ask them to be the only Americans to make sacrifices for their country and to do so without end. Each of our soldiers’ lives is as important as that of the president or any member of his family. The president might think hard about thatï¿½as the numbers of the fallen keep multiplying.
A Chronology of U.S. Military Fatalities Since ‘Mission Accomplished,’ Part I
by Ward Harkavy