The True Costs of War

As the nation moves beyond the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, difficult choices lie ahead. While it has become increasingly clear that the war in Iraq has not made the United States more secure or the world a safer place, future U.S. policy in Iraq is not nearly as clear. Would the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops betray the aspirations of the Iraqi people for a more democratic society, or does the presence of U.S. troops only exacerbate the internal conflict within Iraq? Would withdrawal lead to civil war, or has civil war already begun? Underlying these difficult questions is the calculation of what this war of choice has already cost the United States in terms of casualties, resources and international standing.

Three years after the president’s gaudily staged declaration of Mission Accomplished aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, the costs of this war in terms of casualties and resources are sobering. Over 2,400 U.S. military personnel have been killed (over 2,000 of these since the president declared victory). Over 17,000 have been wounded, many of them permanently disabled amputees. The number of Iraqi civilians killed is uncertain, but most estimates range in the tens of thousands. Billions of U.S. dollars intended for the reconstruction of postwar Iraq have been wasted either through incompetence or outright corruption.

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While Saddam Hussein was, without doubt, a cruel tyrant responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own people, President Bush now asserts that he never claimed that Saddam was involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the passions aroused by those attacks were shamelessly exploited by those who had sought regime change in Iraq long before the 9/11 attacks. The pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was not the next step in the campaign against international terrorism but rather a costly and damaging distraction from that campaign.

While measuring the physical costs of this tragic misadventure may be a dispiriting exercise, less easy to measure is the erosion of constitutional safeguards and American values that has taken place over the past three years. Public opinion polls report that a majority of U.S. citizens do not object to government surveillance of their telephone conversations, even though lawyers in the Justice Department, all appointments of the Bush administration, argued that explicit approval for such wire-tapping had to be secured from federal judges in each case. Even former Attorney General John Ashcroft demurred when the White House asked him to overrule his deputy, who objected to circumventing constitutional safeguards.

Other opinion polls report that a majority of the American public, including U.S. Catholics, would accept the use of torture to extract information from terrorist suspects, even though such information would almost certainly be unreliable. When a reporter for The Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency transports terrorist suspects to secret locations abroad to be questioned without any restraints on the methods involved, the response of the Bush administration was neither to deny nor to defend the existence of such a practice but instead to dismiss a longtime C.I.A. intelligence analyst on the grounds that she had disclosed classified information to a journalist. The C.I.A. analyst denied the charges, but the director of the C.I.A. insisted that it was more important to restore a culture of secrecy in the intelligence community than to explain or defend practices that contradicted the values and traditions of the American people.

The irony in this silent erosion of American values is that it surrenders the most important weapon we possess in the present struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. The campaign against international terrorism confronts a new kind of challenge. Unlike conventional wars between nation-states or the decades-long confrontation of the cold war, this campaign will not conclude with a surrender or a treaty. When the two global superpowers confronted each other in a climate of mutual assured destruction, the danger was all too real, but the competing interests of the adversaries were clear. Such clarity is not present in the campaign against international terrorism. Suicide bombers will not be defeated by missiles and tanks but by the promise of a life of opportunity with hope for future generations. While military responses to clearly defined targets must be part of our response to terrorist attacks, the fundamental and continuing conflict will be one of ideals and values. If American citizens accept the diminishment of constitutional safeguards and American values without protest, we will slowly surrender our most valuable resource in the continuing campaign against terrorism. By failing to understand our adversaries, we run the risk of becoming their mirror images.

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