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In military terms, flag rank officers, defense analysts, and many pundits tend to agree that the “2,000 death milestone” for U.S. military personnel in Iraq really is no milestone at all. The Pentagon argues that the number is irrelevant both to the conduct of the war and to U.S. policy goals there. But others, generally ceding the military point, argue that the nature of the Iraq conflict—an insurgency with no clear end and difficult metrics—has profoundly changed American policy options in such diverse areas as Iran, North Korea, and Islamic terrorism. Further, they see more significance than the Pentagon is willing to concede in the reaction of the U.S. public to the 2,000 death figure, reached on October 25, 2005.
The Pentagon’s view
U.S. military officials from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on down repeatedly have described the pace of U.S. casualties as regrettable but “sustainable.” Earlier this week, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, director of the military’s combined press center, told the Associated Press the number as an “artificial mark on the wall.”
“I ask that when you report on the events, take a moment to think about the effects on the families and those serving in Iraq ,” Boylan said in an e-mail. "The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone. It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives."
His point, and that of other like-minded analysts, is that the 2,000 death milestone is a journalistic creation with no military meaning akin to the stories traditionally written about new American presidents after their first 100 days in office. As Retired Marine Corps Major General Bernard Trainor notes, more American deaths occurred at Omaha Beach in 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge in early 1945, and during a bad month in Vietnam than in all of the war in Iraq.
Public perception matters
Yet Trainor, who wrote a seminal book on the Gulf War with Michael R. Gordon, The General’s War, and is just finishing a book on the Iraqi insurgency, says the Pentagon is missing the larger point. “In terms of psychological significance for the American public, it is very large. This calls people’s attention to the fact that the war is still going on and that a lot of people are dying. That can’t be insignificant.”
As the military and political analyst John Mueller argues in the current edition of Foreign Affairs in his piece “The Iraq Syndrome,” public support for the war has fallen off precipitously when compared to the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. “The lower tolerance for casualties is largely due to the fact that the American public places far less value on the stakes in Iraq than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam.” When weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s alleged links to al-Qaeda proved illusory, “the Iraq war is left as something of a humanitarian venture.”
Trainor suggests the U.S. military itself is to blame for the public’s new perception of casualties. “For decades, the military has been selling the idea that we now had a high-tech capability to fight clean wars, that only the other guy would bleed,” Trainor says. “This idea that we suddenly had a clinical industrial enterprise rather than what war really is, an act of mayhem, has come home to roost. Now people find out we can’t fight a clean war. An insurgency is nasty stuff, and so now the military is paying the consequences.”
Dan Goure, a former Reagan administration defense official now with the Lexington Institute, agrees. “Rather than look at the number being 2,000, you should consider the fact that the casualty rate has remained relatively stable even as the adversary has gained in strength and cleverness. “That, added to the successful passage of a new constitution, implies that significant progress is being made.”
But, like others, Goure sees implications beyond those visible to commanders on the ground in Iraq. Recruitment, particularly in the hard-hit Army National Guard and Army Reserves, has been difficult. The pace of operations, too, has been grueling, wearing out soldiers and their equipment and probably impacting many individuals’ long-term career commitment.
Goure suggests the 2,000 death figure may be more relevant to future conflicts than the current one inIraq. “It really suggests, in the end, that the U.S. is very good at winning wars and not very good at winning the peace,” he says. It’s not just [former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Chairman Paul] Bremer’s fault or the CPA’s fault. It seems to me Americans are constitutionally or spiritually or somehow incapable of the kinds of efforts that Haiti required, and that has been a failure, that the Balkans required, and that’s not sealed up year, and now we see that Afghanistan and Iraq need, too.”