Politics & Prose December 2004

The Butcher's Bill

5,000 U.S. soldiers dead, 25,000 wounded, 4,000 bereaved children. A look at the future of the war in Iraq

"I don't want to be a daddy because daddies die," said Jack Shanaberger, age four, following the death in Iraq of his father, Staff Sergeant Wentz "Baron" Shanaberger, a military policeman from Louisiana. With his four brothers and sisters, Jack is among the nearly 900 American children who have lost a parent in Iraq. According to experts cited by Lisa Hoffman and Annette Rainville in a moving story for the Scripps Howard News Service, "The proportionally higher number of American children left bereaved by the Iraq war is unprecedented." Past U.S. wars were mainly fought by single men, but 40 percent of the 1,256 GIs killed in Iraq as of November were married, and 459, including six women, had children. Shana Corey tells her children that while "[you] might forget what your daddy looks like ... [you should] always remember his hugs, always remember his kisses, always remember his love." They have felt their father's touch. Not so the children of the forty men who died while their wives were pregnant.

The defense analyst Anthony Cordesman forecasts that many more children will share Jack Shanaberger's grief if, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has indicated, U.S. forces stay in Iraq until 2008 or 2009. By then, Cordesman estimates, 5,038 U.S. troops will have died.

The children of the war dead are not the only "hidden casualties" of George W. Bush's war. "People see the figure 1,200 dead," Dr. Evan Kanter, a psychiatrist at a Seattle veterans hospital, told Scott Shane of The New York Times. "Much more rarely do they see the number of wounded. And almost never do they hear anything at all about the psychiatric casualties." Given the bloodshed they have seen and inflicted in intense urban combat, and the fear they experienced from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave Iraq—including, as the rocket attack on the Army mess hall in Mosul horrifically dramatized, when they are "off-duty"—the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who will suffer symptoms of serious mental illness may exceed 100,000. They "are going to need help for the next thirty-five years," according to Stephen L. Robinson, the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. To use Cordesman's scale, if the war lasts four more years it may inflict several hundred thousand psychiatric casualties. Already 31,000 U.S. veterans have applied for "disability benefits" for physical and psychological injuries. Nine thousand have been "wounded." A combat wound is a rifle grenade hitting you on the jaw and driving your bottom teeth into the roof of your mouth. It is a rain of hot metal pulping your eyes. It is all the booted feet in the world concentrated in one piece of shrapnel crushing your groin. It is never walking again, never making love again, losing your sense of taste forever because Donald Rumsfeld did not care enough about you to armor your vehicle. Readers who can tolerate the sight of amputated limbs should see the photographs that accompany a recent New England Journal of Medicine article on battlefield wounds. If the occupation—and insurgency—drags on until the end of Bush's term, the wounded will number more than 25,000. A member of the provisional Iraqi government recently said that, given the growing strength of the insurgency, U.S. troops may need to stay ten years, long enough to double Cordesman's numbers.

Will 5,000 U.S. dead bring "victory" in Iraq? The record of counter-insurgency campaigns since World War II—that is, in the age of post-colonial nationalism—suggests their sacrifice will not bring victory if victory means a unitary democratic Iraqi state. The French spent six years losing the first Indochina war. And they spent eight years, 1954-1962, and more than a million French lives trying to keep Algeria part of France. We intervened in force in Vietnam in 1965, and left, defeated, a decade later. It took the Soviets eight years to lose in Afghanistan. The Israelis occupied southern Lebanon for nearly twenty years before they withdrew. Only the British counter-insurgency in Malaya, beginning in the late 1940s, succeeded. Experts cite it as a hopeful model for the U.S. in Iraq, since the communist guerrillas in Malaya were divided by ethnicity from the majority population as the Sunni insurgents are by religion in Iraq. Yet success took the British and their Malay allies nine, by some calculations twelve, years. Can we last that long in the ring against the Iraqi insurgents?

The stakes are so much higher for them than for us. The Sunni insurgents are fighting against the extinction of their power as the dominant force in Iraq. The Americans are fighting on George W. Bush's misinformed whim. For them, everything is at stake; for us, only pride.

Counter-insurgencies led by foreign forces on the insurgent's soil lose because military victories beget political defeats. You destroy Fallujah and kill many insurgents only to create more insurgents by the publicized ferocity of your attack. You lose by winning. And in Iraq we lose on two fronts. We not only create more insurgents to fight us there but jihadis throughout the Muslim world to attack us here.

The administration pins its hopes on democracy, arguing that a popularly elected national Iraqi government, aided by a well-trained Iraqi national army, will possess the legitimacy to contain the insurgency and dry up its roots. But January's elections, the first stage in a process looking toward Iraqi self-rule, are likelier to hurt than help that project. Sunni parties are calling for Sunnis to boycott the election. If Sunni turnout is low, the expected Shiite victory will be magnified. That will further isolate the Sunnis and drive more of them into an insurgency that will take on an anti-Shiite energy, edging Iraq toward communal violence and civil war. Meanwhile, just over the horizon looms a Shiite-Kurdish conflict over the terms of the Iraqi constitution to be drawn up by the assembly elected in January. The election, in short, will intensify the centripetal political dynamics already beginning to fragment Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish shards. As for the "national" army, if the Iraq nation breaks up, it will too.

We have made a disaster in Iraq. We cannot escape from all of its consequences. But the human consequences of staying—the Iraqi civilians we will kill, the young American men and women alive this minute who will die or be maimed in body or mind—are worse than the political consequences of withdrawing. In any case, the political consequences are notional, as weighed against the certainty of death, suffering, and grief. In our own eyes, our prestige diminished after we withdrew from Vietnam, but our international position was not weakened. Asked for the hundredth time why we were in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson, according to Arthur Goldberg, his U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, "unzipped his fly, drew out his substantial organ, and declared, 'This is why!'" In Iraq as in Vietnam, at risk is not America's prestige but the President's. No one should have to die to save George W. Bush's face.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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