Nearly 1,300 lives lost - and for what?

December 17, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - At Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, a 20-year-old soldier, Army Spc. David P. Mahlenbrock from the idyllic-sounding hometown of Maple Shade, N.J., was buried in a scene often repeated there and around the country these days.

Specialist Mahlenbrock was killed two weeks ago in Iraq by an insurgent's bomb on a road in Kirkuk.

He left a 19-year-old wife and 2-month-old daughter.

What makes the death of this soldier particularly poignant is that only a short time ago he was back in Maple Shade on leave and made DVDs of himself reading his daughter bedtime stories. The videos remain as her introduction to a father she will never otherwise know.

According to an account of the burial in The Washington Post, Specialist Mahlenbrock earlier had written a letter to some comrades in arms in Iraq telling them how he wanted his possessions shared in the event he was killed.

"If you're reading this," he wrote, "I just hope it wasn't for nothing."

The soldier's concern is one that is increasingly inspired by the tragedy of errors begun by President Bush's war of choice, in which its original premises have proved invalid, and continued by incredible demonstrations of incompetence and arrogance at the top.

Both traits were amply demonstrated last week by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in Kuwait, when a soldier complained that he and his buddies have to scrounge through local landfills for metal with which to fashion protective armor for their vehicles.

Mr. Rumsfeld's reply that "you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time" brushed aside the fact that a war of choice should never be undertaken without the Army you need. This is especially so when the commander in chief assures the nation that its military men and women will have all they need to protect them.

On the day before young Specialist Mahlenbrock's burial at Arlington, President Bush, across the Potomac River at the White House, bestowed the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, on three men, one who played a critical role in Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq and two others involved in its implementation.

The first was former CIA Director George J. Tenet, he of the highly publicized assessment of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as "a slam dunk."

The other two were retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who carried out the successful invasion but failed to anticipate the bloody aftermath and the troops needed to cope with it, and L. Paul Bremer III, the former American czar in Iraq whose reconstruction efforts were stalled by that unforeseen insurgency.

In the audience for the presentations was Mr. Rumsfeld, who might have wondered why he wasn't getting the Medal of Freedom too, considering the apparent qualifications for it as awarded by Mr. Bush.

On the same day, two more American Marines were killed, making it 10 in the previous three days. According to the Pentagon, that brings the total of U.S. troops dead in Iraq as of the day of Specialist Mahlenbrock's burial to 1,298, of which 1,019 were in hostile actions.

A recent study by Brian Gifford at the University of California, Berkeley found that the fatality average was lower in Iraq than in Vietnam or World War II, attributable to better medical capabilities in the field. But that statistic will be no consolation to the families of soldiers who also hope, like this fallen 20-year-old new father, that the Iraq war "wasn't for nothing."

The war that was started to get rid of weapons of mass destruction before they could be used against us now has graduated to a crusade (without Mr. Bush calling it that anymore) to bring the joys of democracy to a turbulent region that very well may not want it.

In the Vietnam War, it took Americans at home years before the return of body bags reached a breaking point against a wrong war, with protest spilling noisily and sometimes violently into the streets. One wonders how much longer, and how many more body bags, it will take this time around.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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