Wasted Lives

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Back when I was in the National Guard and fearing a call-up for the war in Vietnam, I went to England on vacation. So it may be only natural, I suppose, that the thing I most starkly recall from that trip was England's majestic cathedrals -- not for the Gothic wonder of them all, but for the tombs of fallen soldiers. They died -- always valiantly -- often in conflicts of little account and no memory. The word "wasted" came to mind.

That word has made something of a comeback. It was used by both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama -- and the context was the present war in Iraq. McCain used the "W" word when he announced on the David Letterman show that he would run for president. "Americans are very frustrated, and they have every right to be," he said. "We've wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives." Precisely so.

The Democratic National Committee, ever poised for the cheap shot, accused McCain of "insulting our brave troops" and demanded an apology. Others joined in, and McCain obliged, saying he should have used the word "sacrificed." Among the sacrifices being made, of course, is McCain's integrity.

Earlier, Obama had also been caught uttering the truth. Soon after he announced for the presidency, the senator concluded a criticism of the war with the "W" word -- "over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted." Obama quickly apologized, confessing to a "slip of the tongue." He then reformulated his statement using the word "sacrifices." For some reason, the Democratic National Committee held its tongue.

It is painfully hard to say -- and even harder to write -- that the lives lost in Iraq were wasted. It sounds like a judgment on the dead when it is meant, of course, as an indictment of the living: America's political leadership. But some sort of finger has to be pointed at the president and some sort of reminder offered that it is not just a policy that has failed but that people have been killed or wounded. This is the real cost of a war that need not have been fought.

What infuriates some war critics is the sense that what is now supposed to matter most -- the lives of American soldiers -- at first did not matter much at all. They were subordinate to the political-ideological agenda that dismissed concerns about the loss of life as sentimentality a great power could ill afford. Besides, the war would be brief and casualties few.

Now, though, the loss of life has become so much greater and the war has gone on longer than anyone expected. Amazingly, it is the soldiers who have been taken rhetorically hostage, pushed out in front while the politicians hide behind them. In the mouths of Bush, Cheney and even Rice, the war is being fought on behalf of the troops. That's a better rationalization, I suppose, than Iraqi democracy, but still nowhere near the truth.

"When members of Congress pursue an antiwar strategy that's been called 'slow bleed,' they're not supporting the troops, they are undermining them," Cheney said last week. Bush, who is a softer, gentler Cheney, has said substantially the same thing. "I think you can be against my decision and support the troops, absolutely," the president said last month. "But the proof will be whether or not you provide them the money necessary to do the mission." In other words, the only acceptable way to support the troops is, paradoxically, to put more and (it seems) more of them in danger. The present "surge" threatens to become an open-ended escalation. The war goes on.

I leave it to history to decide whether the Iraq war will join the War of the Golden Stool (1900) and other such (British) follies as mysteries etched into cathedral walls. But by now, the obscuring of death and injury with emotive words and patriotic babble ought to be seen as a hideously obscene avoidance of accountability. The way to protect our soldiers is not to double our losses but to agree on a sensible withdrawal policy. Particularly for the Bush administration, all this concern for the troops comes a bit late and smacks of insincerity. The war may not have started with a lie, but it seems it will end with one.

cohenr@washpost.com


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