September 12, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
(An interview with Peter Brookes)
The Inquirer: The media have reported that
American deaths in Iraq have exceeded 1,000. How would you assess
this death toll, in light of the degree of difficulty, the
objectives, and the length of the mission in Iraq so far?
Peter Brookes: The loss of a single soldier, airman, sailor or marine is a terrible tragedy. Whether it's one service member or 1,000, our loss as a nation is deep. There is little anyone can say that will assuage the heartbreak of their loved ones here at home. But considering that American forces have been in Iraq for 18 months, engaged in combat with a surprisingly stubborn enemy using guerrilla tactics, the loss of 1,000 American servicemen and women - out of the more than 350,000 Americans total who have served in Iraq - is not completely unexpected. Iraq is a country the size of California with temperatures that blaze to 120 degrees in the summertime. It's home to 22 million Iraqis and several ethnic and religious groups, including the Kurds, the Sunni and the Shia Muslims, who are not necessarily fond of one another. Iraq is also the operating base of an insurgency of up to 20,000 fighters, comprised of Saddam loyalists and other foreign Islamic fighters, including al-Qaeda terrorists. These groups are receiving support from Iran, Syria and others who don't want to see freedom and democracy flourish in Iraq. Frankly, considering the challenges our troops face in Iraq, it's surprising the death toll isn't higher. That fact is a testament to the professionalism of our soldiers and the officers who lead them.
Inquirer: How does this toll compare with those in other conflicts? Is it what one would expect from historical hindsight?
Brookes: Compared with other major conflicts in which American forces were involved, the casualty rate in Iraq is quite low. To put it in perspective, during just the nine days of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, more than 1,000 Americans died. In the Second World War, 405,000 American servicemen and women perished. In World War I, 116,000 didn't come home from "over there." In Asian conflicts with communism, 58,000 died in Vietnam, and 36,000 lost their lives in the Korea War. In America's smaller conflicts, such as the Mexican War, 13,000 Americans perished. In the American Revolution, 4,000 patriots died. And the Spanish-American War took about 2,000 lives, as did the War of 1812 with the British. The war in Iraq isn't over, but gradually the transfer of responsibility for security to Iraqi forces will help decrease the casualty burden of American troops.
Inquirer: As in the war on terror, it is difficult to tell whether the war in Iraq is going well. Is the death toll a significant indicator or should we be looking elsewhere?
Brookes: Clearly, the fact that we've prevented a terrorist attack here in the United States over the past three years - despite continuing efforts by al-Qaeda to strike us again - shows we're making significant progress in the war on terror. But because it's hard to get a feel for the situation in Iraq from stateside, it's easy to focus only on the American death toll in Iraq and ignore the progress that has been made. Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to his own people or his neighbors. We've planted the seeds of democracy in a region long bereft of liberty and freedom. And we've ended Iraq's association once and for all with weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.
As a nation, we should be deeply grateful for the courage and bravery of the men and women of our all-volunteer armed forces. Without question, the world is a safer place because of the American troops who have sacrificed their lives overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere so that we don't have to fight the war on terror here at home. Their deaths weren't in vain, and we should honor their memory by emerging victorious in Iraq and in the war on terror.
Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation and a Navy veteran.
First appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer