War critics don’t dishonor warriors

By Tom Philpott: Military update

More than 525 Americans have died and 3,000 have been wounded in Iraq. Thousands of Iraqis have died too, not all of them Saddam Hussein supporters.
Fresh U.S. ground forces, 100,000 strong and a third of them reserve or National Guard, are preparing to replace soldiers completing a first tough year in Iraq. Troops coming or going are under great strain.
For all of this, the primary reason for invading Iraq — Saddam Hussein’ weapons of mass destruction — cannot be found.
David Kay, Bush’s top weapons inspector until last month, suspects now that large stockpiles of WMD didn’t exist, and maybe had not for several years, when Bush ordered the invasion last March.
Whether the administration intentionally exaggerated WMD evidence, or failed to demand what America and its military deserved — a careful, rigorous assessment of the threat before going to war — it’s hard not to conclude the war had a muddled goal.
Many service members trust and admire the president, and support the war and occupation. They captured Saddam. Libya has vowed to end its own WMD programs. Military people have seen first-hand progress for Iraqi people, though the remaining challenges can overwhelm. And what difference does it make how we got into Iraq? We are in, and for years.
Defenders of the president, particularly leading Republican lawmakers such as armed services committee chairmen Sen. John Warner of Virginia and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California supported the war because of WMD. Still they now try to deflect barbs aimed at the president, implying that critics of the war critics dishonor the warriors.
Not true. Even a monumental intelligence or leadership failure can’t detract from the skill and bravery of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. They have toppled a tyrant. They struggle still to protect a budding democracy, in the face of physical dangers and difficult politically motivated deadlines.
That doesn’t change the fact that this administration pushed for war on fears of WMD, and not on the bad character of Saddam or some unsung song of freedom in every Muslim heart.
These days, in a typical 24-hour stretch in Iraq, U.S. troops conduct more than a thousand patrols, a few dozen offensive operations and capture several suspected insurgents.
In turn, even in a period of “relative stability,” coalition forces face an average of 23 violent attacks a day. U.S. deaths average more than one a day.
Since the war began, the Defense Department announces each death of an American with an e-mail to news outlets. To honor their sacrifice in a very small way, I make a point of reading every one: name, age, unit and cause of death, usually an “improvised explosive device.”
On Jan. 31, the day President Bush bowed to political pressure and agreed to appoint a bipartisan commission to investigate why no weapons of mass destruction have been found, the first casualty report read as follows:
“Pfc. Luis A. Moreno, 19, of Bronx, N.Y., died on Jan. 29, 2004, at the Lakenheath Medical Treatment Facility, United Kingdom. Moreno was shot on Jan. 23 while he was guarding a gas station in Baghdad, Iraq.”
No WMD, I thought, but a soldier dies protecting a gas station. Some day it will all make sense or, like Vietnam, no sense at all.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: