While the Kerry and Bush campaigns trade charges of who is the ultimate flip-flopper, one thing these two gents agree on is to stay the course in Iraq. Today, James Dao in the NY Times asks:"How Many Deaths Are Too Many?." Dao recalls:
In the fall of 1965, the death toll for American troops in Vietnam quietly passed 1,000. The escalation in the number of American forces was just underway, the antiwar movement was still in its infancy and the word"quagmire" was not yet in common usage. At the time, the Gallup Poll found that just one in four Americans thought sending troops to southeast Asia had been a mistake. It would be three years before public opinion turned decisively, and permanently, against the war.
Four decades later, the passing of the 1,000-death benchmark in another war against insurgents has been accompanied by considerably more public unease. Polls registered a steady increase in the number of Americans who believe the war in Iraq was not worth it, peaking at over 50 percent in June. Americans, it seems, are more skeptical about this conflict than about Vietnam at roughly the same moment, as measured in body counts.
The difference, historians and experts agree, is that the"stark experience of Sept. 11 and the belief among many Americans that the fighting in Iraq is part of a global conflict against terrorism have made this war seem much more crucial to the nation's security than Vietnam ..." Death and destruction on continental American soil, coupled with the fact that there is no military conscription, have made Americans much more patient with the Iraq situation. There are other differences too. Dao writes:
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson began a huge escalation of the Vietnam War that eventually brought American troop levels to over half a million. By 1968, the weekly death toll was over 500. No such escalation is envisioned in Iraq, where the deadliest month was last April, when 134 troops were killed. And though the 1,000-dead milestone was reached faster in Iraq, it seems unlikely the toll will keep pace with Vietnam, where it exploded after 1965, reaching over 58,000 by the war's end.
But the death tolls don't tell us the whole story. As I was reminded by the McLaughlin Report and other Sunday morning talk shows today, in addition to the 1000+ Americans killed in Iraq, and the 20,000+ US medical evacuations from that country, the possibilities for civil war are real. Tikrit, Fallujah, Karbala, Ramadi, and Najaf are effectively under the control of insurgent forces. Kurds in the North, who have had de facto"self-rule" since the 1990s, are now battling for control of oil-rich Kirkuk, outside Kurdish territory. The Shi'ite majority, which suffered under the Sunnis during the reign of Saddam Hussein, will not stand by if the Sunnis try to reassert power. The Sunnis, however, remain the predominating influence in the central and northwestern regions of the country. Baghdad, of course, is in a class by itself.
A civil war in Iraq could be a devastating blow to US"nation-building" efforts. (On the various scenarios of"Iraq in Transition," see this periodical put out by Chatham House, formerly the Royal Institute of International Affairs.) It is for this reason that presidential historian Robert Dallek suggests,"the crucial point" in Iraq will come when the US"feels it is not going to achieve its goals." But pursuit of those goals does not take place in a historical vacuum; this is a post-Vietnam generation, after all. Should the feeling become widespread that the situation is unwinnable, leading to less patience among the American electorate, and fewer military re-enlistments, a dramatic shift in the US approach will be forthcoming.
Dao reminds us, however, that
there has been significant public opposition to virtually every war America has waged, except World War II. One-third of the nation did not back the American Revolution, historians say. Congress chastised President James Polk in 1848 for starting an"unnecessary and unconstitutional" war with Mexico. New Yorkers rioted against the draft during the Civil War. The Socialist Eugene Debs went to prison, and ran for president while there, for opposing the draft in World War I. A plurality of Americans thought the Korean War was a mistake during much of that conflict. But in virtually all those cases, dissent did relatively little to prevent bloodshed. Only in Vietnam, which caused the nation's largest and most sustained protests, can it be argued that an antiwar movement hastened the end of a war.
This has had an effect on both sides of the divide:
The government has sought to sustain public support for war by encouraging positive coverage of American soldiers while prohibiting photographs of returning caskets. And antiwar groups have treated returning soldiers with immense dignity - hoping to avoid the kinds of reports about abusive demonstrators that once embittered Vietnam veterans. But one lesson neither side could have gleaned from Vietnam was the impact of 24-hour cable television and the Internet, which have brought death in Iraq closer to home than network television did in Vietnam. In the process, they have amplified the horrors of war and, perhaps, speeded up reaction to it ...
All this points to the issue of those pesky"unintended consequences" that I alluded to here. But"unintended consequences" are not always unforeseeable ones. Many of us on the antiwar side of the divide warned of these very real effects for months prior to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. For me, at least, it was never a question of Hussein's moral legitimacy. His regime, which had benefited from US support and sanction back in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, was immoral. But as the winds of war were gathering strength in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq, I thought then, as I do now, that it would have been possible to contain any Hussein terrorist or weapons threat. That the threat was not as"grave" as the administration proclaimed makes containment, in my view, all the more preferable.
But that is now a moot point. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq now threatens to unleash unruly antidemocratic cultural and political forces that might yet make the Hussein regime a picnic by comparison.