The Body (Politic) Count

It was only a matter of time.




This week, with the slaying of one soldier in a roadside bombing attack, and the death of another in a traffic accident, the number of GI’s killed during the occupation of Iraq surpassed the number killed during the ‘liberation’ of Iraq.

As the Associated Press reports, when President Bush declared an end to ‘major combat operations’ on May 1, the official list of US fatalities stood at 138. Since May 1, 140 American servicepeople have died.

Predictably, Bush didn’t utter ‘140’ in his speech before the 85th annual American Legion National Convention in St. Louis. He didn’t mention ‘278’ either (a little simple math). His only reference to the loss of life came near the end, when he observed that “In hostile conditions and remote parts of the earth, brave Americans are sacrificing for freedom and the security of others. Some have been wounded, and some have been killed.”

Instead, speaking to a room full of veterans, many of whom (unlike Bush) know war first-hand, the president again linked the war in Iraq with the ongoing war on terror, and declared that both are “a test of our strength … a test of our perseverance, our patience, and our will.”

    “The work of our coalition in Iraq goes on because that country is now a point of testing in the war on terror. The remnants of Saddam’s regime are still dangerous, and terrorists are gathering in Iraq to undermine the advance of freedom. Al-Qaida and the other global terror networks recognize that the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime is a defeat for them. They know that a democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East would be a further defeat for their ideology of terror. They know that the spread of peace and hope in the Middle East would undermine the appeal of bitterness, resentment, and violence. And the more progress we make in Iraq, the more desperate the terrorists will become. Freedom is a threat to their way of life.

    They have sabotaged water mains and oil pipelines, and attacked local police. Last week, they killed aid workers bringing food and medicine to the country. The terrorists have killed innocent Iraqis and Americans and U.N. officials from many nations. They have declared war on the entire civilized world, and the civilized world will not be intimidated.

    Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks. There will be no retreat.”

But, if the president isn’t talking about the US casualties in Iraq, his political advisors almost certainly are. Recent polls show Bush’s popularity slipping as a growing number of Americans decide that the country will be bogged down in Iraq for years without achieving the goals Bush so gloriously lays out.

Mounting casualties; continued instability; little visible progress. Hugo Young, writing in the London Guardian, suggests that the Iraqi occupation has “enduring, possibly lethal, political consequences” for Bush.

    “The formal war is over, but the afterburn sears into the body politic of both aggressor powers. The politics are nowhere near over. There has been no catharsis of moral or strategic rectitude. Nothing has been simplified by the so-called victory. In this respect, the situation in Iraq, and probably the region, is as bad as those who opposed war foresaw. The leaders, of course, deny that. But their problems are getting deeper. Four months after President Bush declared the war was over, they face electorates that worry away, as never before, at both the causes and the consequences of an event that should, by normal reckoning, already be docketed as an historic victory. After all, we won, didn’t we?”

Young opines that Bush is not in deep trouble quite yet — suggesting that the war “continues to be blessed in many minds by 9/11,” a dynamic which “Bush plays on … unscrupulously.” And most Americans still seem convinced — despite a total lack of evidence — by Bush’s efforts to link Iraq to the Twin Towers attack. But for how long?

The view from pundits on this side of the Atlantic, while distinctly more parochial, is strikingly similar. Bradley Graham, writing in The Washington Post, declares that Bush may be in for an uphill battle in trying to prove that the war was — and is — worth the cost:

    “Today’s threshold event [a soldier death yesterday that brought the casualty count to 140] represented a largely symbolic moment in the grinding Iraqi conflict. But by highlighting the steadily mounting U.S. death toll, it underscored the political challenge for the Bush administration in sustaining a reconstruction effort that is clearly costing more U.S. lives than winning the war did.”

Yet another pundit, Stuart Rothenberg, tells Voice of America that Bush’s attempt to find “one big success” in the war on terror is fading away — and might be taking a second Bush term with it.

    “‘He thought he had it in Afghanistan, he thought he had it in Iraq. Right now it looks like it’s fading away. If there is a sense that there is no economic rebound a year from now, and the president continues to have these problems, we continue to have casualties or deaths in Iraq every day, then the president is going to lose re-election.'”

So, how will Bush and his cronies meet this challenge? In the president’s case, it’s clear that he intends to ignore the disturbing details and focus on the sort of sweeping rhetoric he rolled out in St. Louis. But other administration officials — those who actually face questions from the press — can’t just duck the issue. So the administration line seems to be (in the words of Donald Rumsfeld): “It’s tough, there are setbacks but there is solid progress being made.”

So, again, it is a matter of time. Will the US stoicism, bolstered by Bushite platitudes, last through the long winter and into the 2004 campaign season?

Lisa Hoffman, writing for the Scripps Howard News Service, notes that the erosion of public faith may depend less on the numbers than on a growing sense that things are not right in Iraq.

    “In Vietnam, for example, an average of 18 GIs died a day for more than seven years. During World War II, the rate was 221 combat deaths a day for four years. Even during the first Persian Gulf War, a 42-day blitz, America averaged about nine dead a day.

    But the steady drip of casualties in Iraq — coupled with truck bombings in Baghdad, an escalating price tag and reports of building Iraqi resentment at the U.S. presence — is contributing to what polls show is a growing unease in America about the course of the mission, said Ohio State University professor John Mueller, an expert on the effect of casualties on public opinion.

    ‘An increasing number of people are thinking about why we are there,’ Mueller said.”

As we said. It’s only a matter of time.