Monday, October 16, 2006

Uncommon Valor

As the Battle for Baghdad rages on, casualties among U.S. troops have increased in recent months. Predictably, The New York Times has already weighed in on the subject, noting that this month may rank as one of the bloodiest months for American soldiers and Marines; so far, at least 53 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq during October, and that total will certainly rise with two weeks remaining in the month.

The Times' veiled message is easy enough to decipher: efforts by the U.S. to improve security in Baghdad aren't working; violence continues to spiral out of control, resulting in more casualties among American troops, Iraqi civilians, and members of that nation's fledgling security forces.

Is that an accurate assessment? To its credit, the Times notes that a major reason for the increase in combat casualties is an increased deployment of U.S. forces in and around the Iraqi capital. With more troops battling terrorists in the heart of the insurgency, it is logical to assume that casualties will increase, at least over the short term. However, the Times fails to note that the U.S. offensive also falls during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, a period that traditionally produces a major spike in terrorist attacks. In recent years, there has been a noticeable decrease in enemy strikes after Ramadan, so it seems likely that U.S. casualties will also fall in November and December--another fact ignored by the Times.

Likewise, the Newspaper of Record also ignores other trends that may not bode well for our enemies. According to data from the same web site (, the number of troops killed by IEDs has declined steadily over the past year, despite an increase in terrorist bomb production and implantation attempts. Since IEDs represent the insurgents's only viable tactic, a decrease in their effectiveness means trouble ahead for the terrorists. And, based on current trends, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq will decline again this year, for the second year in a row. Obviously, the loss of 3,000 military personnel since the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom is a tragedy for a society that values (or should value) all human life. But those casualties should also be weighed in the context of history, and our own, collective sense of what constitutes an appropriate level of sacrifice in defense of our freedoms.

That's why Clint Eastwood's new film, Flags of Our Fathers, is being released at exactly the right moment for American audiences. Based on James Bradley's best-selling book, Flags recounts the historic flag-raising during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. According to early reviews, Mr. Eastwood's film is hardly a paean to war; in fact, it is unflinching in its depiction of the carnage of battle, and the long-term effects of the Iwo campaign on the men who made it through, most notably, the three surviving flag-raisers. It's also worth noting that the current total of combat deaths in Iraq (2300) represents less than half the number of Marines and sailors who died in a single month on Iwo Jima. Marines on Iwo accounted for half of the Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to the USMC during World War II. After the battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz observed that "uncommon valor was a common virture" among the Marines who took that island.

Six decades later, the same could be said of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines now battling terrorists in Iraq. As they carry the fight to the enemy, we should remember their sacrifice, just as we remember the courage of the men who liberated the Pacific during World War II. We should also remember one of the enduring lessons of Iwo Jima and other past campaigns: valor, sacrifice and progress cannot be quantified in terms of a casualty counts, no matter what the NYT might believe. By their standards, Iwo was an unqualified military disaster, and I'm sure the Times's editorial board would have demanded an early withdrawal in 1945, and a courts-martial for the commanders on the scene.


Shaun Mullen said...

This post amounted to little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. One does not have to read the New York Times to know that the situation in Iraq has descended to a point approaching anarchy.

Parsing numbers of U.S. deaths vis a vis Ramadan and so on and so forth is a futile exercise and isn't going to change anyone's mind about The Decider's Excellent Adventure in Mesopotamia at this very late date.

Ronbo said...

Excellent article.

Yes, the timing of the Clint Eastwood movie couldn't have been better -- the parallel between the Battle of Iraq and the Battle of Iwo Jima is well made.

BTW, nice to meet you -- I'm retired Military Intelligence (USASA & USAINSCOM) -- Electronic Warfare.