The Bodies Come Home


President Bush does a good deal of traveling these days. He goes to London, where he is greeted by Britons protesting the Iraq war and occupation. He flies to East Asia, where there are more protesters. He wonders aloud about the angry crowds and asks his staff if they really hate “us” that much. At home he flies around the country on Air Force One, speaking to friendly diners at fundraisers for his planned $200 million re-election campaign—about spreading democracy through the world, about his Medicare bill and energy bill and about the progress being made in Iraq. One thing he doesn’t talk about very much is the casualties in Iraq. His aides say focusing on the American dead and wounded could create a negative state of national mourning; they say it could turn voters against him and the Iraq mission.

Regardless, the stories of the fallen are finding their way into American homes.

On June 15, army private Robert Frantz of San Antonio mailed a letter home to his mother. He apologized to her for not writing more often, explaining the time constraints of 12-hour guard shifts plus daily patrol duty. And then he

wrote: “Someone shot at us last night. I was getting ready to go to sleep and I hear a pop, pop, and then the bullets ricocheted off the building right outside the window I was standing in front of. . . . It kinda sucks, when all you can think about is there’s someone out there trying to kill you or your buddy next to you, and all you can do is hope you kill them first.” Robert, 19, was killed two days later when he was struck by a grenade.

The president is right to worry that his re-election could be impeded by a steady drumbeat of casualty stories. He and his aides have tried to muffle them, accusing the media of looking only for the bad news in Iraq. The press corps, not wishing to be seen as disloyal to Americans, has of late been seeking and finding more good-news stories. Still, there’s really no way for professional journalists to leave out the bad things that keep happening. After all, these men and women in uniform are giving their lives. They are fine young Americans, behaving most of the time with honor, discipline, and the wish to do good.

In the eight months and three weeks of the Iraq war, roughly 450 American soldiers have died, 69 percent in battle and the rest in “non-hostile” incidents that include friendly fire, suicides, and vehicle accidents. Another 2,500 have been wounded, all but 360 in combat. An additional few thousand have been MedEvacked out of the country for treatment of illnesses; more than 500 in this group were listed as psychiatric cases related to “combat stress, depression, anxiety.”

Those are the antiseptic statistics, which tell us almost nothing about these men and women. Yet, usually, the numbers are pretty much the extent of the casualty information we get from the government and the major media on a daily basis. Only rarely do we see photographs of those who have sacrificed for their country, or read narratives about their lives. It seems downright strange, given how important they are to the nation’s leadership and direction.

In a letter on October 14, Private First Class Rachel Bosveld, another 19-year-old, wrote to her mom in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Rachel described how she got “pretty banged up” and lost some of her hearing when an explosion hit her truck, but wrote that she had recovered it. “I’m doing fine, Mom,” she wrote, adding, “Right now I’m soaking my feet. My feet take a beating in these boots. . . . Feels soooooo good now, anyway. I guess I haven’t been taking as good care of myself this month. . . . Well Mom, my 20-minute soak is up. Take care. I love you. Don’t worry so much about me, Mom, my intuition has already saved a few lives here and my own as well.” Rachel was killed in a mortar attack on October 26.

Yes, the next presidential election could indeed hinge on how successful these citizen soldiers are in bringing peace and stability to Iraq. With the exception of the British and some modest military units from the slender list of nations in our “coalition of the willing,” few others are likely to join the U.S. force of 130,000 to tackle this monumental task. The Americans and British fought well and swiftly to defeat the army of Saddam Hussein and capture Baghdad in three weeks. But the aftermath has not gone as well.

Transforming ages of feudal and dictatorial rule into a democracy is hugely more difficult than waging a lightning war with superior forces against a weaker foe. Doing it in a hurry is impossible. Generals have learned this through history. But the civilian leaders in Washington who pushed for this war had no such experience—and few qualms about barging in unprepared. Planning for the occupation—as all of us, including our soldiers, now know—was virtually nonexistent.

One example of the negligent planning may have contributed to the military death toll. Most of the soldiers in Iraq were not issued high-tech body armor; they were instead given less-protective gear, such as Vietnam-era flak jackets. Only dismounted combat troops received the state-of-the-art Kevlar vests, which are reinforced with boron carbide ceramic plates front and back, and have reduced the number of serious torso wounds from which soldiers would die in the past before medics could get them to an aid station.

Of the 130,000 U.S. troops, some 80,000 still don’t have the boron carbide vest. Last month, protests from members of Congress led an embarrassed Pentagon to place emergency orders with three manufacturers, not only for the body armor but also for armored Humvees and other special equipment to cope with the frequent roadside explosive devices and ambushes. The military says these orders will be filled by the end of the month.

In reading the casualty reports, I have been struck by how many of the wounded lose arms and legs. Ironically, while the new torso armor keeps soldiers alive, they are often left with maimed bodies and onerous futures. We’ll be seeing those survivors soon, wearing prosthetic limbs. Let us hope we don’t look away.

As a reporter who served in the army in Cold War peacetime and has covered shooting wars as a journalist, I find something disconnected and even creepy about this conflict. I do not question President Bush’s sincerity when he lets it be known through friends that he feels God has chosen him to lead this crusade. Nor am I skeptical about his visible emotion when he visited with troops in Baghdad on Thanksgiving. I have felt that same emotion while among soldiers who were looking out for me.

What I don’t understand is why the soldiers are the only Americans whom the president has asked to make sacrifices. He has reduced taxes, especially on the rich. He has talked about the importance of volunteerism while his minions lobby to cut funds for AmeriCorps, the domestic peace corps. He tells us, in defiance of common sense, that we can go to war without giving up anything.

The soldiers I have known always wanted information about how the people back home were reacting to their war. It’s damned lonely in the boondocks far from the familiar, so they ask: Do Americans support us, support our mission? Opinion polls on this war say the public is backing the troops, but, after the Vietnam experience, the soldiers on the ground are never quite sure. They also have suspicions about political game-playing in Washington.

On this subject, Lucian Truscott IV, a West Point alumnus who writes often and acutely about the military, visited Iraq recently and wrote, in a New York Times op-ed piece: “A colonel in Baghdad (who will go nameless here for obvious reasons) told me just after I arrived that senior Army officers feel every order they receive is delivered with next November’s election in mind, so there is little doubt at and near the top about who is really being used for what over here.” The resentment in the ranks toward the civilian leadership in Baghdad and back in Washington is palpable. Another officer described the two camps, military and civilian, inhabiting the heavily fortified gold-leafed presidential palace inside the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, as ‘a divorced couple who won’t leave the house.’ ”

The president has been criticized in editorials and elsewhere for not attending any military funerals. The explanations from White House staff are twofold: (1) If he were to go to one funeral, he would have to go to them all; and/or (2) If he did go to funerals, he’d be accused in the press of grandstanding and staging photo ops. There has been no national ceremony for the dead and, as far as is known, senior administration officials are not attending funerals. Nor is the press being allowed to take pictures of the returning flag-draped coffins as they arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, which houses the country’s (and the world’s) largest military mortuary. During the Vietnam War, pictures were allowed and appeared regularly in newspapers and on television.

There are those in the political world who believe that the shadow of Vietnam is what the Bush handlers are really afraid of. Attending funerals, these observers opine, could draw attention to the casualty toll and undermine public acceptance of the war. Many politicians and generals still believe intense war coverage had this effect during Vietnam. Others believe it was the nearly nine-year duration of that war, the longest in the nation’s history, and the rising feeling among average Americans that a successful conclusion was not possible.

If that’s the concern Bush has, he could select another approach. He could go to funerals as he chooses, to honor the dead properly—but do it privately, with security but without the press. That’s probably how he should have handled his Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad, to avoid the media bickering that ensued over which reporters were chosen for the trip and other matters of grave national security. If he wished, he could have taken the White House photographer instead and distributed a few pictures to the press afterward.

The president has already employed the no-press route on some occasions. On November 24, at Fort Carson, Colorado, he met privately with the families of 26 soldiers killed in Iraq. We have been told also that he has made phone calls and written to other families who have suffered losses. A Knight Ridder story by Joseph Galloway in August reported that Bush had made a couple of private visits to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

My guess about the Thanksgiving trip is that his handlers wanted the press along because it was an upbeat, emotional occasion and good for the president’s approval rating. In other words, it wasn’t a funeral.

When other countries with troops there, such as Spain or Italy, lose soldiers or diplomats or intelligence officers in explosions or suicide bombings or ambushes, the bodies go home to state funerals attended by monarchs and prime ministers. But then it’s not really Italy’s or Spain’s war. And the rise or fall of their regimes is not likely to pivot on casualties in Iraq.

But in the United States of America, no matter from what vantage you examine the Iraq war, you are drawn inexorably back to the casualties. The numbers don’t compare to the tolls in Vietnam or Korea, but clearly, the Bush White House did not expect fatalities in the hundreds after “major combat” was declared over on May 1. The “planners” simply did not anticipate an insurgency this fierce. They did not prepare. In fact, it’s worth recalling that some of them said things before the war that made the aftermath of the invasion and military victory sound almost like a walk in the park. Now Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledges it will be “a long, hard slog.”

As the slog continues, so will the combat deaths and the wounds that maim, changing lives and families forever. And though the statistics don’t rival those from earlier wars, technology and globalization have sucked us into a 24-hour news cycle. So the spilled blood in each incident will be repeated over and over during a single cycle. And then comes the next day and another cycle with a new session of rocket-propelled grenades or remote-controlled IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices)—and more casualties. It’s news, because it’s happening to real people, and, regardless of President Bush’s religious sincerity or the merit of his war arguments, these deaths and maimings should not be relegated to the back pages of our newspapers.

The president should try to keep in mind that a year ago, when he was selling this war, he and his coterie, in their certitude about the necessity of invading Iraq, felt they had to do a lot of fact-spinning and distortion to persuade Congress and the voters to get behind it. Now those who answered their commander in chief’s call to war are dying. He should go to the funerals.

Research: Darren Reidy and Matthew Phillp