That Death Toll

There is something morally creepy about the way the White House responded to the news — released as inconspicuously as possible — that the 2,500th American soldier has died in Iraq.

“It’s a number,” said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.

Yes, and so is 5,000, and 10,000, and 15,000. Is there no amount of American bloodshed that would trigger a reassessment of the ideological fantasy that US power can transform Iraq into Kansas?

As an old news hand, Snow caught the tenor of his dismissive remark and modified it with presidential pieties about sadness and heartache. But there’s not enough of the latter to compel a change in policy, so how seriously can we take these expressions of regret?

What’s missing from the administration is a normal sense of moral outrage that would usually be associated with 2,500 deaths that resulted from another cause. If, for example, a sniper or a serial killer in New York were to bring about this horror, or if such a level of death were associated with a coal-mine disaster or the explosion of a nuclear-power plant, the attitude would be very different indeed. There would be a deafening outcry to find out who or what permitted this to happen.

There would be no inadvertently dismissive talk about 2,500 deaths as a “number.”

The remark came so quickly because of the true attitude behind such statistics: they constitute merely a political problem for the Bush administration, a speed bump on the road to a state-imposed end. They regard anyone who would emphasize such a milestone as a political enemy with an agenda.

The priority of dealing with the political problem is a matter of public relations. Further, there is a difference between a moral problem and a political problem. It’s like the child who doesn’t regret his lies so much as the fact that he was caught. The upshot is that the child works harder in the future to cover his tracks.

What is the life of a soldier worth and what are the incentives to preserve it? In modern nation-state warfare, soldiers are fodder. This follows directly from the prevailing theory of government that war should be total. Before the 19th century, wrote Mises, “only the soldiers fight; for the great majority war is only a passing suffering of evil, not an active pursuit.” Soldiers were direct employees of the sovereign, and there were limits on their numbers. They had value. A king who expended their lives wantonly would run out of resources or be deposed.

Today, mobilization in war is total, and all citizens are expected to pay the price. The sovereign believes there is no price too high because the regime itself does not bear the liability. Death is just a number. The US doesn’t even bother counting enemy dead. It counts American dead only because it has to.

“There is a greater good which sometimes necessitates tremendous sacrifice,” said Gen. Carter Ham of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

They define the greater good; others make the sacrifice.

This is especially true in this regime in this time. The Bush administration is ensconced in its marble castles in Washington, D.C., and meets average soldiers only in carefully managed PR events. The soldiers are from far away places — Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama, New Jersey — and occupy a different layer of the social strata from anyone in the ruling class. Usually soldiers sign up for economic reasons. They expect a career boost.

But if the regime wants a foreign war, these young kids must go. Many must die. If the ranks of the enlisted get too thin, they have ways of thickening it: the hidden draft of coerced extended duties, for example. And just as the central bank knows that it can always print all the money it needs, the war regime knows that it always has the draft. The military is “too big to fail” because everyone is a potential member.

The only real moral issue that strikes the Bush administration — which is directly responsible for every one of these lost lives — is annoyance that anyone would be upset. The fodder knew what they were getting into when they signed up. It’s dangerous work. In any case, it is a noble cause, or so they are told.

We are told that the cause is the democratic reconstruction of Iraq, but the invasion has so far resulted in a society ruled by martial law, a people imprisoned under a conquering regime, and a puppet state that swears to uphold Islamic law.

What has Iraq gained? What has America gained? Even if you believe there have been gains, are the deaths worth it?

A death is always more than a number; every one means a young man or woman cut down in the prime of life, leaving broken-hearted parents, loved ones, and children. It is an unmitigated catastrophe for the family and everyone who knew and loved the person.

And these deaths occur amid terrible fear and often excruciating suffering, at the hands of people who have never met them, and all in the name of a political conflict between militarized occupiers and a domestic resistance.

What’s more, it’s a number that continues to grow even as the opposition grows in Iraq. It is no longer plausible to even speak of an isolated insurgency. The US has sparked a full-scale civil war between tribes, a war that cannot be won no matter which side the US takes in the struggle. Perhaps 100,000 Iraqis have already been killed.

Yes, we’ve all heard the clichés about the greater good. I’ve never met a serial killer, a sniper, or the leader of a suicide cult. But I’m willing to bet that they too believe that they served a greater good.

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