The Waste of War

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) may be committed to war – in Iraq, against North Korea, and most everywhere else. But he occasionally speaks the truth, if only inadvertently. Like when he announced his presidential candidacy on the David Letterman show, observing that Americans are frustrated with Iraq: “We’ve wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives.”

Very true. Naturally, the Democratic National Committee attacked him for “insulting our brave troops.” It was a cheap shot, but then, Republicans have proved to be masters of the cheap shot. In fact, the GOP hit Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama when he criticized the war’s consequence of “over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted.” Both candidates apologized.

But both McCain and Obama were right: by now the Iraq war has wasted more than 3,200 American lives. As Michael Kinsley once observed, a political gaffe in Washington is telling the truth. McCain’s supposed “Straight Talk Express” may have crashed, but the rest of us must state the truth. Sadly, tragically, the lives of those who have died in Iraq have been wasted.

They have been carelessly tossed away by foolish leaders, frivolously sacrificed by the arrogant incompetents, starting with the president, who have run (one hesitates to say “managed”) this utterly unnecessary war. There were no WMDs to seize. There was no al-Qaeda-Iraqi relationship to disrupt. There is little chance of liberal democracy flourishing.

A few conservatives seemingly recognize that something is amiss. An almost plaintive Tom Adkins of whines: “We were supposed to win.” Oops. (Alas, Adkins is no less disconnected from reality than is the president, having concluded that Bush’s biggest mistake “was not aggressively selling the war.” Hunh?)

Still, the administration admits no error. Indeed, it seems to view an accusation of error as a commission of treason.

No serious criticism is considered legitimate. To point to the disaster in Iraq is unpatriotic. To point to the administration’s unrealistic assumptions, foolish actions, and arrogant responses is to undermine the troops. To point out that the only logical course in Iraq is an expeditious exit is to support the terrorists.

And to vote against the administration’s latest escalation – to oppose putting more precious lives into the hands of the inept ideologues who took the nation into a needless war and then botched the job – is beyond the pale. Argues Vice President Richard Cheney, who has gone from attending funerals to causing them: “Our troops, the American people, the enemy, the Iraqi people, friendly and hostile governments – all wonder about America’s commitment.” Actually, these people and governments probably wonder more about America’s political system, which elevates to president and vice president two men so demonstrably ill-suited to high office.

Worst of all, though, complains Adkins, “in the face of such treason, the Bush administration did exactly – nothing. They didn’t even offer a few witty barbs.” Which, presumably, would have made up for thousands of wasted American lives.

Speaking the truth to power is no easy task. Jeremy Staat, a former NFL football player who joined the Marines, argued that everyone has to support the war. After all, “You can’t just tell some Marine who just lost his buddy that we supported you but not the war, because in that case you’re basically saying that Marine, his buddy, just died for nothing.”

No one likes to say that, of course. It seems so harsh, appearing to hold the wrong people responsible. Explained Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen: “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.”

Yet the point must be made, lest ever more lives be wasted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asks Americans “to be patient,” even though every significant previous administration promise and prediction has proved false. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, one of the architects of a policy flawed from the start, charges that Democratic attempts to force a withdrawal guarantee failure.

Indeed, ivory tower warriors continue to use the enormous sacrifices made by so many Americans as justification for tossing away even more lives. To leave with the job undone, to withdraw without victory, would waste the sacrifice of those who have died, contends Hadley.

However, the lives that have been lost cannot be redeemed. Lengthening the casualty list will not ennoble earlier deaths. Seeking “victory” irrespective of cost will compound the initial mistake, trading away the valuable lives of courageous servicemen in an attempt to salvage the wrecked reputations of callous policymakers. The best way to honor the dead would be to stop sacrificing the living without purpose.

The human sacrifice, the waste in precious lives, does not stop with America. Allied personnel, too, have died. As well as tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Of course, an American withdrawal cannot stem the flood of barbaric violence as easily as the American invasion loosed it. But the administration’s modest escalation offers little hope of delivering peace. Indeed, as long as the U.S. stays in Iraq, further civil and sectarian war seems inevitable. Washington might change the character of the conflict by fighting or supporting one sectarian force or another, but Washington will not change the final result.

War is a huge waste, a monstrous blight upon humanity. Sometimes we must wage war, but it should always be a last resort. Even the winners usually suffer a terrible toll. Some 3,200 dead in Iraq may seem to be a small bill compared to that for many other conflicts, but 3,200 wasted lives are 3,200 too many. We must bring this needless war to a speedy end. And ensure that U.S. policymakers never again frivolously loose the dogs of war.