More than once, I've heard one of the pretty people on television ask a retired military man if the battle of Fallujah is going to be another Stalingrad.
Ah, the bliss of ignorance. Stalingrad was a nightmarish battle of epic proportions that lasted for months and killed an estimated 200,000 Germans and God knows how many tens of thousands of Russians. The battle of Fallujah has, as of this writing, killed 600 insurgents and about 15 Americans. I doubt if the casualties will rise too much higher on either side. It seems, at this point, that there are fewer insurgents in Fallujah than we thought.
At any rate, unlike Stalingrad or any other major battle in a real war, this is a fight between a fully equipped army of 12,000 against a few hundred lightly armed insurgents. Because we favor destroying buildings and causing civilian casualties (collateral damage) over losing Americans, the physical destruction will be great, but the loss of American life will be minimal.
It bugs me to hear repeated attempts to compare what is going on in Iraq to World War II — or to Vietnam, for that matter. More than 50 million people died in World War II. It was unprecedented in its scale and ferocity. Iraq is to World War II as a flea is to an elephant. A world superpower has occupied a weak, debilitated Arab country of about 22 million people and is now fighting a low-grade guerrilla war against insurgents opposed to our occupation.
It is sad that we have lost about 1,100 soldiers, but in some of the battles of World War II you could lose more than that between breakfast and an early lunch. We came out the lightest of the major participants in that war, but we still lost 292,000 men in battle, another 115,000 from other causes, and suffered 671,000 wounded. In Korea, we lost 37,000 and had 103,000 wounded; and in Vietnam, we lost 58,000 and had 153,000 wounded.
By contrast, in the first Gulf War we lost about 299 and had 467 wounded. So far in present-day Iraq, we have lost just over 1,100 and have had about 7,000 wounded. God willing and the creeks don't rise, we will be out of Iraq long before we approach the numbers of Vietnam.
What is unprecedented is the media attention to Iraq. There really isn't that much going on in the world that provides good video and fairly easy access, so we get a daily dose of the car bombings and now the fighting in Fallujah. But the point is, it is a low-grade war, and if this low-grade war has so strained our armed forces, then we'd better make sure we don't go to war in Iran or North Korea.
It's hard to keep matters in perspective if one relies on television and newspapers. We should all read books. There are tons of popular histories. A person ought to know enough history to at least place himself within his own times. Is the United States in the dawn of new greatness or in the twilight of its decline as a great power? You won't find the answers to questions like that by listening to Sean Hannity do his daily rant about political trivia.
It's ironic that the information revolution has produced more confusion and ignorance than enlightenment. I'm a blue-collar guy who's never pretended to be educated (I don't consider anyone educated who speaks only one language), but the general ignorance of history and geography is kind of scary and inexcusable given all of our libraries and bookstores.
There really is a great deal more to life than partisan politics, video games, television shows, commercial sports and celebrity gossip. American history by itself is more exciting than most novels. If people knew more about the geography of Mexico, they might understand that Mexican migration is a problem that is not going away in the foreseeable future. If they knew more about the history of the Middle East, they would understand why most of what we are doing there is the wrong thing to do.
When we are born, we are dropped into the middle of an ongoing play, so it helps if we learn what has happened before. The present is just a continuation of the past. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for example, is a continuation of a problem created by decisions made at the end of World War I. Bad decisions can cause repercussions for decades.
At the very least, by reading we can avoid confusing a minor skirmish with one of the greatest battles in human history.
November 15, 2004
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.
© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.