In an op-ed column in today’s (October 27, 2005) in New York Times, classicist and Hoover Institute commentator Victor Davis Hanson tries to put the reaching of 2,000 American military casualties in Iraq “in context.” “Compared with Iraq,” he argues, “America lost almost 17 times more dead in Korea, and 29 times more again in Vietnam – in neither case defeating our enemies nor establishing democracy in a communist north.” For those of us who think 2,000 is 2,000 too many, Hanson suggests we remember the 400,000 dead in World War II. “If our enemies similarly believed in the obsolescence of war that so heartlessly has taken 2,000 of our best young men and women, then we could find solace in our growing intolerance of any battlefield losses. But until the nature of man himself changes, there will be wars that take our youth, and we will be increasingly vexed to explain why we should let them.”

But why stop with World War II? Why not add World War I with over 100,000 American war dead, and the American Civil War with upwards of 650,000 casualties? We obviously have a long way to go before Iraq works its way up to the top of the military war dead charts, so why are we complaining so soon? But we are closing in on the War of 1812 with a reported 2,260 combat deaths of American patriots. The Spanish-American War only had about 2,500 combat and related war dead, so that total is also within sight. It does not seem that the context matters, as long as the numbers do not turn realist hawks into idealist doves.

Hanson thinks it unfair to castigate President Bush for the bad turn in the Iraq War. After all, he notes, high numbers of casualties defeated Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman (who may actually have destroyed himself), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon (at least he was “crippled” by Vietnam) and even George Bush Sr. This is rather prestigious company for George W. Bush, which gives him a presidential stature neocons should thank their higher Father for. Whatever Hanson means by context, lumping these leaders together implies that war is war no matter how it starts, how it is fought or what the broader implications are on other parts of the world.

So why do Americans apparently view combat fatalities differently now than in the past? According to Hanson, we seem to have dealt with the high numbers of earlier wars with less grumbling (the author was apparently in the library studying ancient Greek battles during the publically contested Vietnam War). Let’s blame the media, suggests Hanson. If CNN had shown bloody bodies on the beach of Iwo Jima, he muses, we might have pulled out of the Pacific. The administration already trumped Hanson on this point by forbidding pictures to be taken of the returning coffins of soldiers. But then, Hanson continues, we “are also now different, much more demanding people.” It seems we have all become suburban shut-ins “at great distance from the bloodletting and routine mayhem on the farms of our ancestors.” Is this Animal Farm? Wringing a chicken’s neck or packing a steer for the slaughterhouse may seem bloody to some, but torn body limbs of human beings make mayhem. Perhaps, although I doubt Hanson is suggesting this, the seduction of industrial capitalism (at least the consequent urban sprawl) has taken us away from our patriotic, blood-soaked tolerance of combat deaths? If we were all just a bunch of farmers, we could send the boys over and feel right proud when they die for no good reason in a country many people still could not find on a map.

Let’s get real, suggests the op-ed specialist. Bad as it is to have even small numbers of young men and women killed for a possibly dubious cause, what else can we as a people do when those we are fighting (the numbers of Iraqi dead are out of context in this piece) do not share our collective tolerance. Don’t blame the President for a flawed war; don’t fret over the small numbers of our war dead. Until the nature of man changes, there will be wars and rumors of wars. But is it really human nature we should blame for incessant wars where good and bad people both get killed? Should we keep silent and let our leaders muddle on until we get into the tens of thousands? Are we waiting to evolve into decent people worldwide or for Jesus to come back and zap the infidels? And should we only focus on our own casualties? Just think, if the Spanish conquistadores had been unduly concerned about the hundreds who died from an occasional Aztec spear, they might not have taken over the New World. Just think, some 80 million or so indigenous peoples of America might have lived out their lives without gunshot, fire, attack dogs, slavery and smallpox devastating their communities. Just think, because pundits are only too happy to do that for you.

Daniel Martin Varisco