America's Lost 3,000

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U.S. Army soldiers salute during a memorial service for Sgt. Robert Tucker at a military base in Dujail, Iraq.

War can make poets. The British World War I soldier Wilfred Owen had lived as a minor disciple of literary giants until he was thrust into the abattoir of Europe's cataclysmic war to discover the brutal theme of his art. "Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War," he wrote. "My subject is War, and the pity of War." The war invested meaning into his words, giving them a dark significance that still evokes heartbreak.

But can war provide similar meaning to a number? What can now be derived from reaching the grim milestone of 3,000 American dead in Iraq? The public's contemplation of the number should have little to do with the right or the wrong of American occupation, nor with the viability of that seed of peace America is meant to be sowing there. Wars are always paid in blood and numbered in lives lost, the value of that sacrifice doesn't rise or fall like penny stock depending on the popularity of a mission. The 3,000th death is as the first — dying being the pitiable but inextricable consequence of war.

That sort of piety is, naturally, lost on both sides, for whom the zeroes in a round number like 3,000 are instead perfect little mirrors to reflect their own hot opinions of the war in Iraq. Anti-war activists loudly mourn the senseless loss of life. Passing 3,000 is a prime opportunity to plumb the depths of their own angers about how the war was planned, sold, and executed. Hawks mourn the fact that America has lost its grit. After all, they point out, 3,000 dead is still less than half the annual toll in the worst years of Vietnam. And amid either World War I or II, an America with a far smaller population suffered larger losses on some afternoons in the Pacific or in Europe than today's America has suffered in three and a half years in Iraq.

Others, not least the White House and the Pentagon, say, all too blithely, that numbers like these are arbitrary and unimportant. But that only highlights the non-numerical false milestones and would-be watersheds they have set up in the past. It is not just statistics that can lie. When Saddam was captured, it was going to break the back of the insurgency. Same when a democratic government was elected, a constitution drafted, a coalition government formed. The latest false milestone is the death of Saddam, another momentous event in the history of Iraq that is unlikely to change a single thing for American forces or those who are fighting them.

On Veterans Day 2005, not long after the death toll reached 2,000, President Bush repeated his assertion that "the best way to honor the sacrifice of our fallen troops is to complete the mission." Have these deathly numbers now become omens of even more somber ones to come? The 3,000 mark arrives at a moment when the President is said to be contemplating real change — perhaps even more troops in Iraq. On December 20, Bush said of the war in Iraq, "I believe that we're going to win. I believe that. And by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there."

The military is pushing ahead as before. It was announced that the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division is preparing to go from Fort Bragg to Kuwait, where they will be the reserves ready to head into Iraq. The All-Americans, as the brigade is known, are paratroopers by training and have historically had clearly defined mission — as their homepage puts it, "execute a parachute assault, conduct combat operations, and WIN." But unless this moment of rumination results in actual strategic change on the ground, it is unlikely that the brigade will be doing what it was trained for in Iraq. The paratroopers will be instead tasked to the dirty and dangerous business of running convoys along booby-trapped roads. With those marching orders, winning is an ill-defined and barely anticipated outcome. Just more war. And more's the pity.

A poet like Owen leading trench charges in World War I seems no more senseless than paratroopers leading humvee convoys in Iraq. But as we look backward at our lost 3,000, it's worth hoping one more time that the ending stanza for the paratroopers today will be better than Owen's. He was killed in action trying to take a canal from German defenses, just one week before the Armistice ended the war for good. He never saw his verse published in a book. War can make poets and war can kill them, one by one.