When you look at charts of casualties in earlier American wars, the Iraq War figures still seem pretty low. Deaths off the battlefield have been comparatively low: 20% of the total compared to 18% in Vietnam, 38% in World War II and a staggering 92% in the Mexican War. Since that figure varies so widely among wars -- disease playing a major role in some of them -- in making comparisons we should leave out the “other deaths” category. In the Mexican War, fought between 1846 and 1848 to acquire Texas, California and what are now six other western states, just 1,733 Americans were killed in action. In December, U.S. battle deaths in Iraq reached 1,751, finally exceeding that modest Mexican toll. We won’t likely hit the next largest figure, that of the War of 1812, for a while. There were 2,260 killed in action in that one. The next milestone to pass would be the Philippines Insurrection (1899-1902) in which the U.S. lost 4,234 soldiers while slaughtering countless Filipinos demanding independence. Then came the Revolutionary War figure of 4,435 KIA, the 34,000 of the Korean War, and the 47,000 of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War began quietly and escalated gradually. Before the Tonkin Gulf Incident of August 1964, there were only 21,000 U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam, military advisors rather than combat troops. By the end of 1965 there were 184,000 troops. Still, the number of US troops killed in action between 1961 (from which military historians date the war) and 1965 was just 1,864. That’s pretty much where we are now in the war in Iraq with our 1,751. But the next year, another 5,008 died as the war suddenly escalated. The Vietnamese guerrillas were just getting started; there were 9, 378 U.S. troops killed in action in 1967. As the insanity of the imperialist war peaked in 1968 -- just as ardent war supporter George W. Bush was graduating from Yale and getting his Texas National Guard appointment -- 14,594 U.S. soldiers died trying to quell a resilient insurgency. Another 15,000 would die in action before a combination of Vietnamese resistance, GI revolt, and domestic American antiwar protest brought an end to the whole criminal enterprise.
Many are drawing parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, while noting that the two situations aren’t closely analogous. One way in which they differ is in the expenditure of national treasure. The cost of the Iraq War already exceeds $300 billion, half of what U.S. taxpayers in current dollar terms spent paying for the Vietnam War. But that war just started getting hot in 1966, in which the 5,008 were killed in action. Imagine 5,000 more Americans dying in Iraq in 2006 as the country descends into civil war between communities all of whom want them to leave.
Better yet, imagine popular pressure expressed in mass demonstrations and other ways forcing the withdrawal of all the troops this year. Imagine Congressional investigations into the prewar lies, days after days of damning evidence: a new climate of journalistic freedom; a slough of exposes about the Bush administration’s illegal spying, approval of torture, and use of disinformation; greater awareness of and resistance to the Christian Right agenda; an ever-broadening call for impeachment hearings; calls for a rational re-engagement with a world that has come to deeply and rationally fear the U.S. Imagine a movement that could at least help check the hands of the crazies seriously contemplating an attack on Iran, or an invasion of Syria, this year.
Maybe both scenarios are unlikely. Maybe the current sort of war will continue in Iraq another year but take a modest toll (say under 900), putting it over the War of 1812 figure but well under the Philippines Insurrection count. Public opinion will remain divided but produce no real change of course. The U.S. will work with a government in Baghdad established under its auspices but with strong ties also to Iran, while simultaneously seeking to topple the Iranian regime. Maybe the year will pass without new ground wars in the region. Maybe investigations into the Iraqi prewar intelligence will embarrass the administration a little, and affect plans for more aggressions. But things are happening very fast. I wouldn’t be totally surprised to read about missile attacks on Tehran tomorrow. Nor would I be surprised if snowballing scandals so change the political environment that the neocons will find themselves unable to proceed with their plans. A lot depends, surely, on what happens on the streets. So far there are major antiwar, anti-Bush demos scheduled for January 31, February 4, March 18.
The antiwar demonstrations of 1966 were small affairs. One led by Veterans For Peace, 30,000 strong, marched down 5th Avenue in New York City while demonstrations also took place in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and other major cities around the country on March 26. We’ve done so much better than that already, in New York and Washington D.C. The popular disillusionment with this war exceeds that felt about Vietnam 40 years ago. It’s just a question of how to build upon it to bring a screeching halt to the administration’s madness. Surely again veterans and military families have a key role to play.
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During the “Philippines Insurrection” a sergeant in the First Nebraska Regiment named Arthur H. Vickers questioned the mission. “I am not afraid,” he declared, “and am always ready to do my duty, but I would like some one to tell me what we are fighting for.” A century later Cindy Sheehan asks a similar question: Why did her son have to die? The mere posing of the unanswered question embarrasses the administration. It shows its Sunday School simplisms aren’t satisfying to everybody. It’s not enough to say that the Greater Middle East is a breeding ground of terrorism/evil because of the “Islamofascists” in the region, and so to protect the threatened and good American people “we” have to seek out “the enemy” abroad and strike him before he has the chance to attack us at home. That logic easily convinces those predisposed to nazi-like appeals to ignorant bigotry, a substantial community in many advanced societies. It loses its appeal as those most at risk gauge the situation, report from the front that the case for war was a pack of lies, and when (and if) back home play leading roles in the antiwar movement.
Here’s to the Fort Hood 3, sentenced to three to five years of hard labor Sept 7, 1966, for refusing to serve in Vietnam. May their example this year inspire the current generation.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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