WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq, which the Bush administration believed would end more than a year ago, reached a somber and costly milestone this week when the number of Americans killed there passed the 1,000 mark and the number of wounded neared 7,000. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that the level of violence is increasing, not decreasing.
That the adventure in Iraq amounts to a blank check on the national treasury and an unending drain on the lives of our soldiers and Marines is no longer in question.
A thousand of our nation's finest troops are dead. Seven thousand more are wounded, half of them seriously enough they were not returned to combat, and many of those with smashed or amputated limbs from the blasts of homemade bombs and mines. An operation that its advocates and planners predicted would be over in six months and paid for with Iraq's oil revenues drags on with no end in sight, costing the American taxpayer more than $100 billion a year.
Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers said the ``recent spike'' in American casualties reflects an enemy that's becoming much more sophisticated and adaptive in their attacks.
Painting Iraq as a critical part of America's global war on terror, Rumsfeld made it clear that war should and would continue for as long as it takes. He said the war didn't begin on Sept. 11, 2001, or when the United States invaded Iraq last year, but dated back to the Beirut Marine barracks bombing in 1982.
Rumsfeld said the thousand American dead in Iraq are only part of a toll that numbers in the thousands, or tens of thousands, in two decades. The fight must go on despite the sacrifice of all those lives, he added.
Then the defense secretary, perhaps hoping to soften the impact of all those dead Americans, gave a very rare body count estimate of between 1,500 and 2,500 enemy killed in Iraq last month. By offering a body count for August, Rumsfeld violated the unwritten rule of every administration and a generation of military leaders to avoid giving such counts.
In Vietnam, the body count became notorious as the only way to measure and reward success in an unending guerrilla war. The pressure for ever-higher counts of enemy killed, in turn, corrupted junior commanders in the field who routinely inflated or simply made up body counts that would make their superiors happy.
An earlier defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, was a data addict. The chief numbers cruncher, who knew the cost of everything and the worth of nothing, was himself captured by the body counts. At last he had something quantifiable out of Vietnam. But McNamara forgot that old saw: Figures don't lie, but liars can figure. And a newer computer-era saw: GIGO - garbage in, garbage out.
Take the new Iraq numbers. If, as Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, has said, the total insurgent strength in Iraq is now only 5,000, and if Rumsfeld's high-end number is correct and 2,500 of the enemy were killed in August, then just one more month and the enemy will all be dead and we can go home. Right?
Would that it were so. When you fight in urban terrain, in the streets and alleyways of cities teeming with people, the killing you do today breeds new enemies tomorrow. Galloway's rule of thumb is that for every enemy you kill in a guerrilla war, you create two new ones.
Worse, machine guns and tank guns and Bradley chain guns and Air Force and Marine bombs inevitably kill the innocent as well as the guilty.
The ordnance destroys homes and automobiles and the pitiful possessions of the dispossessed, and it creates even more recruits to the war against the Americans. You blow up my house and kill my mother, and I will soon be waiting on a rooftop with an AK-47 and an RPG launcher and hatred in my heart for all Americans.
This is why the main emphasis in counter-insurgency warfare is, or should be, on the political side of political-military operations. This is why there can be no purely military solution in Iraq. This is why, until and unless some political solution is found, Americans and their allies will continue to be maimed and killed in Iraq on a daily basis.
© 2004 Knight Ridder Newspapers