Sitting on a desk somewhere in the Pentagon is a computer printout listing
projected American casualties for a range of Iraq invasion scenarios. Unfortunately,
these vital figures are the only numbers that haven't been part of the war debate.
We've heard all kinds of estimates about how much the war is going to cost
-- including Ari Fleischer's ultra-macho Bullet to Saddam's Head discount special
-- how many troops will be deployed, how much the price of oil may go up, and
the over-under on how long our forces will have to remain in Iraq. We've been
given headcounts of Iraq's fractious Kurds and Shiites, reference numbers for
security council resolutions defied, and been frequently reminded that Saddam
has remained in power for 34 years, 11 of them since the last time we tried to
send him and his mustache packing.
But no one in the Bush administration is talking about how many of our soldiers
will be sent home in body bags. And not a single reporter has stood up at a press
conference -- or at one of the president's countless fundraising appearances --
and asked, "Mr. President, how many young Americans are going to die?"
Will the deaths number in the hundreds, as was the case in Desert Storm and
as would be again if Saddam collapsed like a cheap umbrella? Or will they be closer
to the 10,000 to 50,000 some experts have predicted? And is Saddam the clear and
present danger that would justify asking our sons and daughters to give up their
lives for their country?
The question of casualties is all the more important given the weight attached
to polls showing that over 70 percent of Americans support an invasion of Iraq.
This purported groundswell of public opinion is being dropped like an old-fashioned
"dumb" bomb to kill dissent on both sides of the political aisle.
Let's set aside for a moment the ludicrousness of basing our national security
policy on the shoot-from-the-lip responses of a person who has been interrupted
in the middle of dinner -- or a soapy shower or helping the kids with their homework
-- and asked by a pollster, "Do you support the president's policy on Iraq?"
The fact is the number of Americans in favor of going to war with Iraq plummets
-- down to only 39 percent in the latest Zogby poll -- when the prospect of "thousands
of American casualties" is added to the question.
And such a bloody outcome is very likely given the kind of urban warfare it's
going to take to oust Saddam. Forget about the caves of Tora Bora or the open
desert cakewalk of the last Gulf War. Baghdad is a densely populated city of 4
million people -- roughly the same size as Los Angeles. Picture our troops having
to battle their way down Hollywood Boulevard in search of a lone madman.
"We have to be prepared to fight block by block in Baghdad," says Gen. Joseph
Hoar, the former commander in chief of the military's central command. "All our
advantages of command and control, technology, mobility, all of those things are
in part given up and you are working with corporals and sergeants and young men
fighting street to street. It looks like the last 15 minutes of 'Saving Private
Ryan'." Or every frame of "Black Hawk Down."
The high number of casualties that would result from gaining control of a
heavily defended Baghdad is the main reason Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf,
and the president's father pulled up short of the capital city the last time we
took on Saddam. And remember that Saddam is a master of that ruthless strategy
of defense known as "the human shield." Even the smartest of bombs will not be
able to discern between Republican guardsmen and Iraqi children. That will be
the dangerous business of Army rangers, Marine expeditionary units, and other
And unlike the Gulf War, which was primarily about the liberation of Kuwait,
this war is about the elimination of Saddam. We've heard again and again that
this ruthless despot will do anything, no matter how reckless or costly, to preserve
his own regime. And we also know that he has been amassing stockpiles of biological
and chemical weapons, hideous high-body-count instruments disdained by the civilized
world. You don't have to be George Tenet to connect these dots. Saddam will use
whatever weapons he can in the impending fight to the finish. If he's going down,
he's taking as many of us with him as he can.
"The likelihood is very good that he could use weapons of mass destruction,"
Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told
the Senate Armed Services Committee in September. "It could get very messy...The
casualties, in my judgment, could be very high."
We are told by the proponents of invading Iraq that it's a bold step necessary
to prevent future casualties. But in order to make an informed decision on the
war, shouldn't the people also be told how many present casualties we will have
to suffer in order to avoid these future ones?
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