As In Vietnam, Casualties Rise In Iraq While U.S. Dithers

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The Star-Tribune (Minnesota)

As In Vietnam, Casualties Rise In Iraq While U.S. Dithers

The Wall Is A Reminder That It's Costly to Keep Troops In Combat While We Hope Another Idea Comes Up.

Last week, in a ceremony that happens every year, the U.S. government added more names to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.Two of the new names carved into the wall were veterans who died recently from wounds they received decades ago in Vietnam. One died in 1966 in a weapons accident, and his parents finally persuaded the Navy to count him. All three are reminders that the shadows of a war extend for decades.

In fact, they extend across future wars.

And the decisions about when to get out of them.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Wall, is shaped in a shallow V, cutting a gash into the earth. The V can stand for Vietnam, but it can also have a different meaning.

The deaths are listed in chronological order, and the line between the dead on the East Wall and the West Wall is May 25, 1968, two months after President Johnson announced that he wouldn't run again and would reconsider his war policy. In other words, all the deaths on the West Wall -- most of the total -- came after the people running the war knew it wasn't going to turn out the way they had planned, and were looking for a way out.

It took them 30,000 names to find one, and when it arrived it didn't look too different from what could have happened much earlier.

Last week, at the same time the three names were added to the Wall, folks at the other end of the National Mall were arguing about a timeline for winding down the current war. President Bush has vetoed a congressional appropriation bill that included a timeline for departure from Iraq, insisting that, more than four years after the invasion, it's too soon to think about any ending for the war.

"Our friends in the [Middle East] need to know and the Iraqis need to know that we are not looking to leave Iraq," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared to PBS host Charlie Rose. "We are not going to leave an Iraq that is not capable of defending itself and with a foundation for future reconciliation."

If that's your only plan, there's going to be a U.S. military return address in Iraq for a long time.

Along with a steady stream of U.S. casualties.

In fact, according to White House spokesman Tony Snow, "We are getting to the point now with the Baghdad security plan where there is going to be real engagement in tougher neighborhoods, and you're likely to see escalating levels of casualties."

There are also less visible costs. A recent Pentagon survey found that constant danger and uncertain deployments in Iraq hurt the mental health of U.S. troops there. "Iraq is already in chaos," commented Cindy Williams, a military personnel expert at MIT, "but for us to stay there and continue to wreck our Army over this is a big mistake."

But the only plan is to hang on and see how it looks in the fall. "By the time we get to September, October," says House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, "members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn't, what's Plan B."

It's not the most confident look forward.

And every day in Baghdad, and on a wall in Washington, we see the costs of a policy of just keeping U.S. servicemen in combat while we hope another idea comes up.

"What do you want us to accomplish over here? We aren't hearing any end state. We aren't hearing it from the president, from the defense secretary," Sgt. 1st Class Michael Eaglin, on a base in Baghdad, recently told Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post. "We're working hard, and the politicians are arguing."

Spec. Adam Hamilton added, "It's almost like the Vietnam War. We don't know where we're going."

Washington doesn't know where we're going in Iraq, either -- except that we'll keep going there until at least September.

The original destination -- a democratic, united, secular Iraq, a beacon for change throughout the Middle East -- vanished from the itinerary a long time ago. Now we're just looking for a place to get off.

"No one believes there's a victory at the end of the tunnel," National Public Radio senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins, who visits Iraq several times a year, recently told the American Journalism Review. "It's how long you hold on and pretend."

And how many casualties pile up while you do it.

David Sarasohn

David Sarasohn is a columnist and managing editor for the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Oregon.

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