DEFENSE Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was offensive enough when he intimated last week that US troops were as interchangeable as automotive factory parts. Irritated at a question from a reporter about why 20,000 American troops had to stay 90 days longer than expected in Iraq, he said: "Oh, come on. People are fungible. You can have them here or there."
The Bush administration has used the term "fungible" before. It withheld $34 million from the UN Population Fund. "Money is fungible," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher as the administration hid behind reports of coerced Chinese abortions to deny funds to the rest of the world. Rumsfeld has said that any accusations that the United States invaded Iraq to control its oil supply are "utter nonsense. Oil is fungible. People that have it will want to sell it, and it doesn't matter who they sell it to."
Now soldiers are the latest commodity in a war where it did not matter who the United States sold it to. Rumsfeld says America needs to keep troop numbers up to quell the chaos in Iraq. The last three weeks have been the deadliest for the Americans in the 13-month invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since March 31, about 100 US soldiers have died -- as of yesterday, one-seventh of the war's 706 fatalities. "In the end, it will be successful," Rumsfeld said.
US soldiers are already successful at killing Iraqis. In the invasion itself, from mid-March to May 1, 2003, US and British forces killed Iraqis at a rate of 60-1, according to the Cambridge-based Project for Defense Alternatives. Rumsfeld boasted that Iraqi military personnel would become our loyal friends once "they are persuaded that the regime is history."
Over the winter Saddam Hussein was captured. But chaos continues. In the latest insurgency, we have killed at least 1,000 Iraqis. Despite the American fatalities, we are still killing Iraqis at a 10-to-1 ratio. Yesterday, the commander of US forces in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, boasted that the insurgents have "seen the might of the American military unleashed."
Yet Rumsfeld needs more soldiers to unleash more might. We have been here before. In 1966 in Vietnam, we killed North Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong at a 14-1 clip. The US military was convinced it would win a war of attrition. We escalated the war. But in 1967, 1968, and 1969 -- the years where Americans suffered the most battle deaths -- the kill ratio remained one US soldier to 14 fighters for North Vietnam.
In 1968, Army General William Westmoreland said: "The enemy can be attrited, the price can be raised, and it is being raised to the point that it could be intolerable to the enemy." American soldiers were "fungible." To Westmoreland's surprise, the other side decided they were equally so.
This makes you wonder about Rumsfeld, who a year ago declared that he knew where Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were. Last week, Rumsfeld said: "I certainly would not have estimated that we would have had the number of individuals lost that we had lost in the last week." This is the same Rumsfeld who said last year: "It is precisely because of our overwhelming power and our certainty of victory that we believe we can win this war and remove the regime while still striving to spare innocent lives. Our military capabilities are so devastating and precise that we can destroy an Iraqi tank under a bridge without damaging the bridge. We do not need to kill thousands of innocent Iraqis to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Even by the most conservative estimates of human rights observers, we did not spare innocent lives while removing the regime. The Project for Defense Alternatives estimated between 3,200 and 4,300 civilians were killed in the invasion. Other groups claim that around 10,000 civilians have been killed in the invasion and occupation. That would translate into a kill ratio during the invasion of at least 23 civilians for every US soldier during the invasion.
If the 10,000 figure, used by Medact, the British arm of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, is accurate, then we are killing Iraqi civilians -- not Iraqi soldiers but Iraqi women, children, and nonmilitary men, at a clip of 14-1. That is the same rate at which we killed North Vietnamese soldiers.
US soldiers are becoming "fungible" in another way. Even though Britain was the only nation to provide more than 5,000 troops to aid the Americans, who currently number about 134,000, the Bush administration has boasted of a mighty coalition.
But once Spain's new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, announced he will pull out that nation's 1,300 troops, the role is suddenly not so critical. Sanchez said the loss of Spain's troops "is clearly manageable. It is not a significant military problem." In the fungible world of Rumsfeld, the unmanageable is manageable because he thinks he can throw soldiers at the problem. Rumsfeld said oil is fungible because it will end up in the hands that can pay for it. Now he says soldiers are fungible. But the way we have manhandled the Iraqis, the war may already be lost, no matter how many troops we put in there.
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