The Butcher's Bill in Iraq

If you’ve gone 100 miles, are you making progress? That all depends on whether you’re going the right way. Evaluating the death toll in Iraq — more than 3,000 Americans and many more Iraqis — requires similar questioning of the basics.

Think of World Wars I and II and the Cold War. Each had its death toll, but all deaths are not equal when it comes to public reaction.

The butcher’s bill for World War I was huge: 10 million military deaths and a massive number of civilians as well. Both winners and losers soon looked upon the effort as a terrible waste.

World War II butchery was even worse — 25 million military and 37 million civilian deaths, by one count — but afterward the British remembered "their finest hour," Soviet subjects celebrated "the great patriotic war" and Americans honored "the greatest generation."

A big difference was the recognition of villainy. World War I, at least in retrospect, seemed a war fought over the ambitions of czars, Kaisers and kings. In World War II, though, Americans and others realized that the villains — especially Hitler — had to be stopped, even if we had to become co-belligerents with another villain, Josef Stalin.

During two hot periods of the four decades of cold war devoted to stopping Stalin and his epigones, 100,000 Americans gave their lives fighting to a draw in Korea and failing to stop the Communist takeover of Vietnam. Still, their sacrifice gave countries like South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand time to make progress.

Given the enormous mortality rate in other wars of the past century, it’s strange that 3,000 American deaths in Iraq have triggered such a reaction, especially since some of the villains we oppose are Hitleresque. But with our most influential media coming to the judgment (which some arrived at even before day one) that our efforts are doomed to failure, any number of lives lost seems too many.

Is the U.S. effort in vain? It’s clearly made life in Iraq harder for many but better for others once persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Are more Iraqis and Americans dead now than would have been had Saddam remained in power and more terrorists had focused on U.S. civilians far away rather than Americans in uniform close by? We’ll never know.

One of my favorite movies is "The Great Escape," a 1963 action-adventure film based on the real-life escape of 76 POWs from a German stalag in 1944. Hitler’s henchmen recaptured 73 of the 76 and shot 50, including the officer who had planned the escape. But the movie instructs us that the effort was not fruitless: "Roger’s idea was to get back at the enemy the hardest way he could. Mess up the works. From what we’ve heard here, I think he did exactly that."

The U.S. effort in Iraq has gotten back at terrorists and messed up the works. Has it been worthwhile? At the end of "The Great Escape," when one officer asks the other if he thinks the harm to the German war effort was worth 50 deaths, the first replies, "I suppose that all depends on your point of view."

One point of view is that no deaths in war are worthwhile. Pacifists hope that if we say no to violence others will too — but history and a Bible-based appraisal of human nature say otherwise. Some pacifists say it’s better to be killed than to kill, but even if it were right to commit suicide, in essence, is it right not to defend others?

Are we making progress? What’s needed now is wisdom, and it’s not clear who has it. In a hundred years historians may know whether our soldiers died in vain, but in a hundred days we’ll have a sense of whether we’re going in the right direction. Be wary of politicians and pundits who speak with certainty now.