WASHINGTON — Somehow a good many Americans seem to have come to believe that war can be conducted without casualties.
"Just wait until they see the body bags," a friend said recently in opining about the potential lack of resolve among even those supporting the war in Iraq once U.S. soldiers began dying on the battlefield. "There are those who like to talk about our military superiority completely in the abstract like it was a video game. But when it comes to the real-life results, look out."
His view was reflected, for instance, in the banner headlines of major newspapers that screamed about the number of coalition troops who had died — one said 16 and another 20 — early in the fighting, ignoring the fact that in most any other conflict in the last century so few deaths would have been considered a major victory.
Where this lack of public understanding of the true nature of warfare developed is anyone's guess. Perhaps my friend's suggestion of electronic detachment is a correct one. But as children we fought and died in our backyards against the Axis enemies of World War II while our older brothers and fathers and uncles left their lives on the fields of fire in Europe and the Pacific in the real thing. When they didn't come home or returned barely intact, we understood that people actually were killed or maimed in these affairs. We knew what a gold star in a window meant.
The agonies of Vietnam, which spawned much of our angst over the need to die for causes, have faded. Even most of our college students weren't born when the last American gave up his life there. And the first Gulf War with its limited scope hardly qualified as more than a police action that lasted about a month with but a few days of ground troop activity and few casualties.
In this current instance those in command of our forces are somewhat to blame for high expectations of low body counts, holding out the prospect that this would be a fairly bloodless proposition and then retreating from that quickly when it became apparent that many Iraqis apparently would resist our calls for them to cooperate in their own liberation. A swift conclusion did seem perfectly plausible considering the overwhelming might of 250,000 of the best equipped, most technologically advanced and supported fighters in the history of the world.
Nothing could possibly stand up to such a force, particularly not an army outfitted with obsolete equipment fighting for the survival of a cult leader like Saddam. Could it be, however, that the incalculable element on their side is their own need to defend their homeland from infidel invaders?
The fact is the end of the Saddam regime, which has blighted and disrupted the world for too long, is inevitable. The might of the allies truly is too much for even the most fearless Iraqi fighter to withstand. His only hope is that world opinion might hold off the end for a moment or two or that American support will falter in the face of the casualty lists. In reality, that is a strategy as pathetic as it unrealistic. This is not Vietnam being fought by a conscripted army for some specious theory. This is an all-volunteer force of professionals that understands what they signed up to do and why they are doing it.
While the loved ones of these brave men and women are no less concerned about their safety and possible death than those of the draftees of an earlier time, they are conditioned to expect that this might happen some day. Their sons and daughters and husbands and wives chose the protection of our nation as a career for better and for worse, after all.
Americans need to realize, and certainly millions do, that in another incarnation, Saddam was Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and any number of other genocidal, despotic maniacs who have polluted the world and gotten away with it too long because of a lack of resolve in those who could have stopped them. He is a bad "dude," in the parlance of the 19-year-olds trudging through the desert in search of his head.
Achieving that objective will cost our nation some blood, it is now apparent. Is it worth it? Those giving it certainly believe so. Hopefully, it will not be too much. But even if it is more than expected, the last thing needed is for those at home to flinch.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.