May it never happen, but let us suppose that at some point the United States falls into the grip of a cruel tyrant, an American Stalin who slaughters millions to keep himself in power. And let us further suppose that some uninvited foreign power sees fit to liberate us at the price of one American life in every thousand -- a mere 400,000 American lives, fewer by far than our tyrant has slain during the decades of his ghastly reign. Would we welcome this liberator?
In Iraq, those slain by Saddam Hussein during his years in power may well number in the hundreds of thousands. The price of the uninvited U.S.-led liberation of Iraq is at this point far lower, a mere 26,000 dead -- or one Iraqi life in every thousand. To be sure, the price is far higher if account is taken of combatants killed. But consider for now only the 26,000 civilian dead. Should the Iraqis consider this price worth paying? Should the U.S., their liberator, consider this price worth exacting?
The U.S. government keeps no count of civilian war dead in Iraq. The figure 26,000, out of a population of 26 million, is the running tally -- maintained by www.iraqbodycount.com-- reported by at least two on-the-scene foreign correspondents. (The Lancet, the British medical journal, has estimated 100,000.)
The comparable figure for a future United States, with a population of 400 million, would be the 400,000 cited above. The figure today would be 296,000 of our population of 296 million.
American political rhetoric constantly invokes the nearly 3,000 killed on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York -- as a rallying cry, an intolerable sacrifice, an epic tragedy. But imagine the trauma if between then and now we had sustained two or three such losses every month. In May, Iraq suffered 702 civilian deaths. The proportionate American loss would be 7,992 killed, or about 9/11 times three.
Iraq has had many such months, and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld opined that the war could go on for “four, eight, 10, 12, 15 years, whatever.... We don’t know. It is going to be a problem for the people of Iraq.”
Indeed it is. In World War II, the Italians lost civilians at about the same rate as Iraq is losing Iraqis now. The war there lasted just over six years. Waging it, on the part of the Allies, was a key element in a strategy that succeeded in unseating three dictators, among them Hitler. The war in Iraq will lead to no comparable world victory and so will never have been worth the lives -- civilian and military -- that it is taking.
The case for the war in Iraq rests on the premise that a great good -- the ouster of Hussein -- justifies a great sacrifice. Supporters of the war ask, “Do you want Hussein back?” But Hussein was not on the march when we invaded, he was on the run. His weapons program was under crippling scrutiny. The existing no-fly zones had ended his ability to massacre Kurds and Shiites with impunity. He was not immortal. His downfall would have come eventually -- without the catastrophic slaughter set in motion in a country that had never attacked the U.S. militarily or supplied weapons to even one anti-American terrorist.
This is why Pope John Paul II was morally opposed to the Iraq war, as were the leaders of nearly all mainstream Protestant churches in our country: The danger posed to us by Iraq was too far from imminent and the means -- a war of radically unpredictable outcome -- too likely to be horribly disproportionate to the end of self-defense.
This war has been a colossal blunder, and most Americans now seem to believe as much. The question facing the president is the too-well-remembered question of the Vietnam War: “How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?”
But the young John Kerry was only half-right. Sometimes, cruelly, a nation must indeed ask its young to die in the recovery from a great mistake. This is one of those times. Cutting and running now would only increase the cruel cost of invading in the first place.
But at some point we will withdraw, and young Americans are tough enough to hear the truth that when our forces leave, they will not have brought about the “total victory” that President Bush so vaingloriously insists is “our only goal, our only option.”
We are aiming for much less. Just how much less remains to be determined and will be painful to face. But if there is pain in acknowledging failure, there is shame, horrendously lethal shame, in denying it.