Shell-shocked wives of soldiers are racing home from Oceanside beauty salons to see if their husbands are among the latest casualties in Iraq. But there's nothing to worry about.
The Shiite uprising appears to be throwing the entire country into bloody chaos, and weary American soldiers are being ordered to extend their tours of duty. But you have some good moments and some less good moments in these kinds of enterprises, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
If things were spinning out of control, would President Bush be on Easter holiday at the ranch in Texas, where he was visited Thursday by members of the National Rifle Assn., Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever?
Twelve Camp Pendleton Marines have been killed in the last week, most of them in one horrific battle Tuesday. But there's no "major combat" in Iraq, the president's flack assured us even as several cities were under fire and up for grabs. It's just that a "relatively small number of extremist elements" are being pesky little insurgents.
Can you really even call it a war?
In a war, you honor the dead by greeting their return to American soil. But media, and sometimes even family members, are still banned from air bases as the bodies arrive. The White House doesn't want us to get the crazy idea that Operation Iraqi Freedom has gravediggers working overtime.
Last month, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) called for an end to the ban during an antiwar vigil at the air base in Dover, Del. The rally was held by families of American soldiers, and Jane Bright was there. The San Fernando Valley woman's son, Sgt. Evan Ashcraft, was killed in Iraq last July. He was 24.
"I believe we have to turn over our solitary control of Iraq, get the U.N. and peacekeeping forces in there, and begin to remove the American footprint on this," Bright says.
But she's well aware of the degree of difficulty, given the U.S. alienation of allies and what she sees as an American quest to control Middle Eastern oil supplies, regardless of how many lives it costs.
She fears, in fact, that things will get much worse before they get better.
"My husband happened to say to Congressman Rangel, 'We're worried about the draft being reinstated, because I have an 18-year-old.' And Rangel said, 'The draft has already started. They're drafting reservists now. They're drafting grandfathers.' "
Reinstating the draft is an interesting idea. If national leaders are able to downplay the risk and tell us everything is proceeding just swimmingly, could it be because their loved ones aren't picking sand out of their ears and dodging rocket-propelled grenades?
The president's daughters are safe, just like Daddy was during the war of his era. (Bush and Vice President Cheney both managed to avoid any whiff of battle back in their day). And only a handful of congressional representatives have had any family member in harm's way in Iraq.
Sure, it's a volunteer army. But many who sign up do so because they aren't exactly blessed with myriad options. And soldiers serve under the assumption they are not risking their lives on the basis of hyped threats, goosed intelligence and hidden agendas.
Go to CNN.com, Bright suggested, and look at the price of all that deception.
I clicked a few times and there it was — the roll call of fallen soldiers. The list goes on and on and on — 644 American soldiers killed in the first year of a bloody campaign whose end is nowhere in sight.
You hit the "Next" button again and again, and the soldiers keep marching onto your screen. Pages and pages and pages of them. There's a small photo of each, along with hometown, age, and when and where they died.
Some are smiling. Some sport a combat pose. Some look like kids.
Among the dead, 129 were 22 or younger, and going through the list, you spot a lot of 18-year-olds.
An additional 3,000 American soldiers have been injured in the war, many of them permanently disabled.
Estimates on the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war run well into the thousands.
All Rumsfeld said was that you have good moments and less good.
He didn't say which there'd be more of.
Not that I'm keeping track, but there were no weapons of mass destruction, the deadly ethnic sparring was easily predictable, we're in trouble whether we stay or go, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more combustible than ever, and there's no telling how many new terrorists have been spawned.
No, it isn't Vietnam. It's much more dangerous than that.
But that's the cynical view.
The good news is that President Bush is resting up at the Everything's OK Corral, and Condoleezza Rice assured the Sept. 11 commission that her boss "never pushed anybody to twist the facts" and create a link between Iraq and the hijacking of American airliners.
U.S. commanders are scrambling to determine whether they need more troops to quell the bloody uprisings, but that's probably because they didn't get the White House memo assuring everyone there's no "major combat" and nothing to worry about.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times