Sunday, December 31, 2006

3000 plus 650,000 equals 1 and 0

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? ... We are here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership?"

John Kerry before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, April 23, 1971
Photo credit: U.S. Navy

The Numbers

Today marked the death of the 3,000th American soldier during combat operations in Iraq. Note all that qualification - considerably more Americans have died since the start of the war, but they weren't officially killed in combat, or they weren't soldiers. Increasingly, according to this GAO report among others, the war is being conducted with the help of civilian contractors, who provide everything from lunches to security. As White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said about the 2,500 mark, it's just another number. It's just a number, of course, unless you happen to be one of those 3,000 or their families.

There's another number to consider. That's the 650,000 plus Iraqis who have died due to the violence or privation of this war. To me, this is an incredible number. I've never lived in a town with more than 90,000 people in it. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica 2004 Almanac, Baltimore, MD, Memphis, TN, and Austin, TX all had populations of about 650,000 in 2000. What's more, this was the differential increase in the death rate, which means that this is how many more people have died because of the invasion than would have died had mortality rates remained at their old levels. Those old levels are after eight years of economic sanctions and two major wars. Iraq, in other words, wasn't a terribly healthy place to begin with. The Lancet article on this study describes this slaughter in dry statistical terms:

Pre-invasion mortality rates were 5.5 per 1000 people per year (95% CI 4.3–7.1), compared with 13.3 per 1000 people per year (10.9–16.1) in the 40 months post-invasion. We estimate that as of July, 2006, there have been 654,965 (392,979–942,636) excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war, which corresponds to 2.5% of the population in the study area. Of post-invasion deaths, 601,027 (426,369–793,663) were due to violence, the most common cause being gunfire.

Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey

In other words, more than 600,000 people, more than the population of Milwaukee, WI, have died since the invasion due to violence of one form or another.

Here is another number - one. One man hanged for being a murderous bastard of a dictator who ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of his own people and started a ruinous war that killed hundreds of thousands more.

Finally, zero is the number of people this war has caught who were involved in the 9/11 attacks on our country.

That's it. More than 3,000 Americans dead, more than half a million Iraqis, numerous missed oppurtunities to make progress in Afghanistan and deny the Taliban and Al Qaeda a home, with the result that one egregious dictator, who wasn't much of a threat to us, could be executed for crimes against his own people. I can't imagine any reasonable person saying that the world is worse off without Saddam Hussein in it. Unfortunately, I suspect he'll be succeeded by another one fairly soon. Anyone feel like breaking out the champagne?

What The Numbers Mean

We've gotten nothing out of this war that the average American would want. We haven't defeated Al Qaeda. We haven't defeated a country that was a threat to us. We haven't even made that country healthier, let alone a thriving democracy. That adds up to nothing for a whole lot of death, not to mention a whole lot of expense.

When Taylor Marsh posted an article on her website noting the death of the 3,000th American servicemember in combat operations in Iraq, the only thing I could think of commenting with was the quote from a John Kerry of long ago that appears at the start of this article. Where are our leaders? How in the world did we get into a war that was so clearly wrong, and so clearly not in our interests? How did we end up killing more than half a million Iraqis for something that was barely worth the trouble of sending witnesses?

What drove me to choose that quote was that Kerry is so symbolic of how dysfunctional our government has become. Of all the elected officials in Washington, DC, his experiences fighting in and then trying to end a useless, wasteful war should have taught him not to trust that someone else has asked all the relevant questions about whether we should go to war. He voted for the Iraq War authorization, despite not knowing the true story about the justifications for war. He did it despite the obviously preposterous story that then Secretary of State Colin Powell told to the United Nations. He did it despite being a leader of the opposition party in Congress. Why he did it may always remain a mystery. He said he did it because he didn't want to undermine the President's bargaining position. Maybe that's true, but if so it was a very bad decision, which, in fairness, Kerry acknowledges. That quote of his, uttered at the time of the Vietnam War, could just as well be directed at him today.

I'm not trying to blame Kerry for the Iraq War - that circus would have gone on no matter what Kerry did. The Republicans controlled the House and Senate, and they were far more slavish to the President's desires than the meakest Democrat. Nevertheless, Kerry made it seem a more legitimate exercise by voting for it. He also had a lot of company; more Democratic senators voted for the Iraq War authorization than voted against it. Nor do I feel that I have much room to criticize - I spoke out against the war, but I still worked for the defense industry at the time. Kerry's gone through far more for his country than I ever have, and hopefully ever will. It's just that he personifies what's been dysfunctional in our government in a way few other politicians do on this issue, even the other Vietnam veterans. He forgot the lessons he learned in Vietnam, as did a great many people.

The Lessons We Forgot

So, what are those lessons? What have we, once again, forgotten about being a functioning democracy that has gotten us into yet another ridiculous conflict entirely of our own making?

The politicians forgot that if you want to get the country involved in a war, you need the overwhelming support of the American people. They also forgot that "overwhelming support" doesn't mean the part of the country who were fools enough to believe the lies they were told about why we needed to fight.

The press forgot that their job is to find out what the truth is, not to correct the spelling of government press releases or edit White House press conferences to get rid of the stuttering. They're not there to be cheerleaders. Being a journalist takes more than practicing that piercing stare until you've got it just right for the promos. It's about having a desire to pierce through the BS to find the truth. Got that, Mr. Williams?

We forgot, to quote Bruce Springsteen, that blind faith in government can get you killed. Why we forgot that one, when so many of us who are parents and grandparents remember Vietnam, may be the biggest and saddest mystery of all.

Maybe this time, someone will write these things down so we remember them next time, and there almost certainly will be a next time. I heard so many lectures from morons about how Iraq isn't like Vietnam I can practically recite them back by now. I'm pretty sure they'll forget the real lessons again, assuming they even learned them this time.

Which means, I suspect, that we'll go through all this again in thirty years.

Happy New Year.

UPDATE: Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake has another take on the numbers.