Sunday, December 26, 2004
Excerpts from "The Butcher's Bill," by Jack Beatty, from Atlantic Online (the full article, alas, is available only to print subscribers). Beatty opens with a depressing statistic: although past wars were fought primarily by single men, well over a third (36.5%) of the U.S. troops killed in Iraq as of November 2004 were moms and dads:
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 [defense analyst Anthony] 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 . . . .
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.