Friday, December 16, 2005

Look on the Bright Side

When the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in April 1912, over fifteen hundred people died. If Donald Rumsfeld had been around back then, he might have wondered why newspapers overlooked the positive aspects of the story. Things weren’t all bad on that tragic night. For one thing, over 700 people were rescued and lived. A whopping 74% of women on board the ship survived, as well as 52% of children. And the Carpathia, the first ship that came by to pick up Titanic’s survivors, had a successful Atlantic crossing; not one passenger was lost.

That’s the kind of Pollyanna-ish spin Americans can expect from their not-so-beloved Defense Secretary. Before the war in Iraq began, Rumsfeld brushed off the idea that it might last more than a few months. Nearly three years later, he asserts that news coverage of the war is too negative, claiming there is a contrast between the stories of suicide attacks and dead soldiers that Americans read and the views of the Iraqi people and U.S. troops themselves. Rumsfeld threatened to make a complete break with reality when he recently compared Iraq with America’s World War Two victory at Iwo Jima: “You couldn’t tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the 26,000 [American casualties],” Rumsfeld insisted, “So too, in Iraq, it’s appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed…but what they died for, or more accurately what they lived for.” The Secretary said that context is missing from reports of suicide attacks.

I am fortunate to be one of the few observers whose head did not explode when reading the transcript of Rumsfeld’s speech, given at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Therefore, the task falls to me to point out some of the major flaws in the Secretary’s umm, what do we call it? Logic?

Iwo Jima was a major American victory coming after many other American victories had pushed the Japanese back from their strongholds in the Pacific. It followed major American triumphs in the Phillippines and at the battle of Leyte Gulf. We suffered grievous casualties at Iwo Jima, but nearly every Japanese soldier on the island was wiped out. Of nearly 22,000 Japanese defenders, only 200 survived to be taken prisoner. This was a huge victory. Iwo Jima was secured and became an important air base used for the ongoing Pacific campaign. To put it in a larger context (as Rumsfeld demands for Iraq), things were also going well on the European front. American troops were marching across Europe to meet Russian troops coming from the east, where they met in Berlin just a couple of months later. Total victory was in sight and came less than six months later with V-J Day.

All this contrasts with the quagmire in Iraq. We do not control Iraq. Not even Baghdad is secure. American soldiers are dying at an alarming rate—11 Marines were killed just the other day and more than 2,000 have died in all. There is no evidence that we are close to defeating the insurgency. There is every reason to expect it will continue as long as we keep troops in Iraq. In short, there is no end in sight. When Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recently appeared before a Senate Committee she refused to say whether American troops might still be needed in Iraq in 10 years.

None of this takes anything away from the bravery or idealism of our troops in Iraq. They have done everything that has been asked of them and are continuing to perform their duties under conditions that would drive most of us stark raving mad.

It does nothing to help our troops, however, to brush aside reality. Reality is that we have been in Iraq for nearly three years. No WMD were found. The country has been torn apart by sectarian violence. U.S. credibility is gone. A majority of Americans no longer support the president and no longer think it was a good idea to invade Iraq.

The fact is that creative (though warped) thinking can make even the worst disaster sound like it has an upside. On the tragic day when the Challenger space shuttle exploded, seven crew members were killed, but 99.9% of NASA employees survived the day. When the plague swept through 14th Century Europe, it killed an estimated 34 million people. But more than two thirds of Europeans lived on. When a flu pandemic hit just after World War One, millions died worldwide. But most people survived that too.

Maybe we should try to take Secretary Rumsfeld’s advice. We have a Secretary of Defense who helped author a costly, tragic war in Iraq that, after nearly three years, has achieved none of its promised objectives. On the positive side, there are rumors that Rumsfeld may be on his way out of office as many are clamoring for his exit. Maybe there’s something to positive thinking after all.


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