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The big picture on American deaths in Iraq


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August 28, 2003, 8:45 a.m.


The big picture on American deaths in Iraq.

n the 118 days between May 1 and August 26, there were 63 American battlefield deaths in Iraq. About two weeks ago, the left-wing press recognized that this did not sound as dramatic as they wished. So they started totaling all military deaths in Iraq, including those from accidents, which happen in military life every day, everywhere. This brought the total up by another 78. They're more comfortable with that total number, 141. But the true battlefield number is 63.

This is significant, because in the first stage of the war, from March 19 until April 30, 112 Americans died in combat, and 29 in various accidents. In those first 42 days, that meant almost 3 combat deaths per day. In the 118 days since then, there has been about one combat death every other day — 63 in 118 days. (The accidental deaths have been fairly consistent: 29 in 42 days early on, and after May 1, 78 in 118 days.)

The total number of American combat deaths in Iraq since March 19 has been, then, 175. But the number of U.S. Marines killed in one single night during the bombing of their barracks in Lebanon in 1983 — the first blow of terror against America — was 243. Drawing a lesson from that incident, Osama bin Laden said before September 11, 2001 that Americans have become soft and surrender prone. Plainly, this is true of some Americans; but I don't think of most.

Consider: During the Vietnam War, Americans lost an average of 15 dead every day; during the Korean War, 30 every day; and during World War II, an average of 214 every day. The numbers in Iraq this year have been far below that.

Tragic for the family as each of these deaths is, the total number of combat deaths in Iraq this year comes to 175 in 170 days, two-thirds of those during the first 40 days.

Nonetheless, it is hard for Americans watching television this summer to watch our young soldiers being picked off one at a time, assassinated really, not in battle, but in cowardly ways (a shot to the back of the skull on a university campus, a grenade dropped from a bridge into an open humvee, another grenade launched at Americans on guard at a children's hospital). Every single death hurts. The drumbeat regularity of one death every two days hurts even more.

The nine Democratic candidates for the presidency in 2004 are already campaigning bitterly on this and other "bad news" issues in Iraq. Democratic hardcore voters hate George Bush with insatiable passion. The candidates who desperately need this hardcore vote in the upcoming Democratic primaries fix on bad news in Iraq like vultures.

President Bush, largely silent just now, and biding his time, has powerful arguments waiting in rebuttal. He welcomes the strategic error of the Democrats in attacking him on the issue of war — where he is far stronger than they — rather than on domestic issues, where they have advantages.

For one thing, terrorist attacks all around the world dropped sharply in 2002 and even more so far during 2003.

Second, there has been no further terrorist attack in America in almost two full years. There have been multiple threats, and any day another tragedy may yet occur. But the nation is not where it was prior to September 11, 2001.

Afghanistan is no longer an open, free training ground for al Qaeda. Iraq is no longer threatening Iran and Kuwait. Also, no longer sending funds to Palestinian homicide bombers. Iran, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia are being more careful, now that they are closely watched. These are large steps forward for the Middle East. More must be done.

Since March thousands of terrorists from around the world have flocked to Iraq to wreak death on Americans. They are still pouring in, drawn like moths to flame. They hope to kill Americans. Instead, they themselves are being killed in droves. In early August, for instance, in an American sweep north of Baghdad, while eight Americans were being killed, more than 300 Fedayeen who engaged them died in combat.

Every terrorist who rushes to Baghdad to kill Americans is one less who is attacking Americans at home. The American strategy is to fight them in Iraq, and other places outside the U.S., rather than to sit and wait for them to come to harm us in New York, Washington, or Los Angeles.

More and more middle-level Iraqi are losing their fear of Saddam and the Baathist party, and are bringing intelligence to the Americans. Even restless, hostile youths on the street are refusing to take up arms against the Americans; the reward they are being offered for killing one American has had to be raised from $300 to $5,000.

Meanwhile, 95 percent of Iraq, while still bristling with privately held arms and dangerous, has brought very few deaths to Americans and others. Virtually all the killings of Americans these days take place within a triangle whose three sides are approximately 100 miles in length. This small triangle, a mere five percent of Iraq's land surface, runs from just south of Baghdad about 100 miles north to Tikrit, about 80 miles from Tikrit to Al-Ramadi, and another 80 miles from Al-Ramadi back to Baghdad.

This is the famous "Sunni triangle," Saddam's homeland, and his most-committed base, the main source of his leadership cadres, and his most trusted and fiercest loyalists. What future do these Baathist Sunnis face, in an Iraq democratically led by a Shiite and Kurdish majority? Even though their rights will be protected, and their interests represented in the new government, some of them will still have to face an unblinking justice. For how long will their scarlet crimes be remembered by those they tortured, murdered, and tormented for 30 long years? Some of them desperately fear a just society.

Still, this small strip of hostile territory will not forever hold its secrets. The call of peace and prosperity will beckon to many civilized and decent people, and age-old streams of dignified manners and peaceful commercial ways will again emerge and flow anew, even in the Sunni Triangle.

Meanwhile, the United States is composed of 50 states, and every day there is an average of one murder in each of them, 50 every day. These 50 are tragic losses, too. They put the losses in Iraq in perspective.

Except that the young American soldiers in Iraq are there as volunteers, who are offering their own lives so that others might live. That is what makes each of their deaths so uniquely painful to their fellow citizens.

We will never be able to honor them enough.

— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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