Those are good kids that we're sending into the shooting gallery called Iraq, and unless you have the conviction of a Bush or a Rumsfeld or a Bechtel or a Halliburton, you have to be nursing the sick feeling that each death is a tragic waste, and that this conflict is as much of a fool's errand as the war in Vietnam.
Despite the deceit and chronic dissembling of their political leaders in Washington, and the wretched conditions on the ground in Iraq, the young men and women are fighting bravely. So there was Gov. George Pataki earlier this week with the unhappy task of asking for a moment of silence in remembrance of Sgt. Heath McMillin, a 29-year-old National Guardsman from Clifton Springs in upstate New York.
Sergeant McMillin was killed on Sunday when his unit was attacked while on patrol south of Baghdad.
Over the weekend The New York Times had an article about the close-knit family of Cpl. Travis J. Bradach-Nall, a 21-year-old marine from Portland, Ore., who was killed on July 1 while clearing mines in south-central Iraq. The corporal loved tattoos, and his favorite movie was "Ghostbusters." The article was accompanied by a photo showing his brother and three cousins with memorial "Ghostbusters" tattoos.
Why are these kids dying?
The United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. But instead of using all the means available to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Bush administration became obsessed with the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the takeover of Iraq.
That is a very peculiar ordering of priorities.
The federal government issued public warnings this week after being alerted to potential new terror attacks against Americans by Al Qaeda, including the possibility of airline hijackings in the U.S. or overseas. President Bush said yesterday, "We're talking to foreign governments and foreign airlines to indicate to them the reality of the threat."
But even as the president was speaking, word was coming out that the Transportation Security Administration is trying to cut back its air marshals program to save money. The war in Iraq is costing scores of billions of dollars a month, and the president's tax cuts have grown so large they're casting shadows over generations to come. But we can't afford to fully fund a program to protect American airline passengers.
"When we are faced with more priorities than we have funding to support, we have to go through a process of trying to address the most urgent needs," said a spokesman for the security administration.
The credibility of the Bush administration is approaching meltdown. The White House won't level with the American people on the cost of the war, or the number of troops that are really needed, or the amount of taxpayer money that is being funneled to the politically connected corporations that have been given carte blanche for the reconstruction.
While the Bush crowd was happy to let the public believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow connected to the Sept. 11 attacks, it won't come clean about the real links between the Saudis and Al Qaeda. And you won't hear from the administration that the phantom weapons of mass destruction were never the real reason for the war, but merely the pretext. The real goals were to establish a military foothold in the region, remake the Middle East and capture control of Iraq's fabulous oil reserves.
Right now there is no viable plan for securing the peace in Iraq, and no exit strategy. There is no real plan for demolishing Al Qaeda and the genuine threat it poses to the security of all Americans. (Similarly, at home, there is no plan to get the economy moving and the millions of unemployed Americans back to work.)
Iraq is not Vietnam, where more than 58,000 Americans were killed. But it is like Vietnam in that deceptive leaders have maneuvered the country into a tragic situation that I do not believe Americans will support over time.
For the Bushes and the Rumsfelds, this is a grand imperial adventure, with press-conference posturing and wonderful photo-ops, like the president's "Top Gun" moment on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.
For the youngsters condemned to the shooting gallery, it's a fearful exercise in survival in a conflict that has never been adequately explained.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company