A burden shifted, not shared

After The Iraqi Elections

February 03, 2005|By Ivan G. Goldman

MY SON SHIPPED out for Iraq on Monday. When he told me the Army would issue him a new weapon before boarding, I told him to hijack the plane to Sweden. But you know kids. They never listen.

Now our family has joined a select group that panics each time a U.S. casualty is reported. But we just go on about our lives the same way cancer patients do. You keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Most Americans figure they can get someone else to shoulder this burden, that some other family will be the tragic, faceless statistic.

If college students knew they might have to patrol Fallujah or Mosul in onion-skinned Humvees, you can bet they'd be organizing around the clock to burn draft cards, churn out posters and round up loudspeakers for some of the biggest demonstrations you ever saw. But nowadays, we draft only those men and women who at one time or another were sufficiently naive, desperate or selfless to volunteer for the armed forces.

As long as they expect that someone else will get stuck with the losing hand of death, disfigurement or lifetime emotional trauma, college students, who were the most dependable foot soldiers of the Vietnam War protests, figure they might as well turn over and go back to bed.

But when you compare our daffy mission in Iraq to what we tried to accomplish in Vietnam, our Vietnam fiasco comes out looking downright reasonable. Our goal then was easily defined -- to prevent the North from taking over the South. Sure, we failed, but at least the depth of our commitment was in the same ballpark as the demands of the mission. At the height of the war, we posted 543,000 troops there.

Our mission in Iraq has morphed into a new one each time the previous excuse failed. Remember when we were told the oil extracted from Iraq would pay for the war, the occupation and a full national makeover?

The flawed election was a relatively good thing, but not when the reward is measured against the cost. If I promised to get you a lovely new vacuum cleaner, that might sound nice. But if I returned with a rusted, broken-down machine and presented you with a bill for, say, $850,000, you would likely decide it was not worth the price.

The primary mission in Iraq is to cover up the fact that the war was a terrible mistake. Stuck with this bloody task is a force of approximately 175,000 U.S. and allied troops swimming in a sea of 25 million Iraqis. But the Bush administration can't send reinforcements because this would force it to replace its stealth conscription system with a more conventional draft.

That means the cards today's college students are playing aren't as good as they think. As long as we're stuck in the Iraq chaos, we are dangerously vulnerable, with almost no uniformed reserves left to draw upon. Were we to get involved in a conflict elsewhere, the administration would be forced to either quit Iraq or re-establish conscription.

The financial cost of the Iraq folly -- more than $4 billion a month -- may also be difficult to shift to others. The prevailing attitude is to pass this enormous debt on to our children and their descendants. But the economic consequences for cutting taxes while we feed somebody else's sons and daughters into the wood chipper may catch up with us sooner than we think.

This war is all about shoving the mess onto others -- other families, other generations, other presidents. But the bell tolls for all of us.

Ivan G. Goldman, a columnist for Ring magazine, just completed the book Crazy Money: My Trip Through the Galaxy with `Investor's Business Daily.'

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