Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The 4,000th death as metaphor

The occasion of the 4,000th American military death in Iraq has actually triggered something akin to a miracle on the home front, forcing people to focus anew (albeit briefly) on President Bush's historic misadventure - at the expense of ignoring (albeit briefly) the potential death spiral of the fractious Democrats.

I won't use this milestone to broadly recount how the "cakewalk" morphed into a catastrophe, or to lament on how Bush will be dropping his slop into the lap of his successor. I'll simply note the manner in which the 4000th soldier met his demise (in the company of three comrades), and suggest why the incident is a metaphor for the ill-begotten war.

The 4,000th was killed by a roadside, makeshift bomb - in military parlance, an improvised explosive device (IED). How perversely fitting. According to the Pentagon, IEDs for the first time are now responsible for a majority of American military deaths. Twenty-one percent of the first 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; 35 percent of the second 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; 46 percent of the third 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; for the fourth 1000 deaths, it's 54 percent.

Why the death toll? Because, as has been well documented, the Bush war planners in 2002 and 2003 did not anticipate that insurgents armed with IEDs would be an obstacle to the vaunted American military juggernaut - because they didn't forsee the possibility of an insurgency, despite CIA prewar warnings. All this, despite Bush's assurance, in an Oct. 7, 2002 speech, that "we will plan carefully" for any conflict in Iraq.

The Bush planners, in the early months of 2003, spoke instead of quick surrenders and citizens greeting us with flowers. They hinted at times of a two-week war. They never bothered to draft a plan to secure the thousands of Iraqi munitions caches, which reportedly contained as much as one million tons of explosives; as Gen. John P. Abizaid, the new chief of U.S. Central Command, confessed to Congress when the war was four months old, "I wish I could tell you that we had it all under control. We don't."

So explosives, reportedly by the tens of thousands, were spirited away from these ill-guarded munitions dumps, and, by the summer of 2003, IEDs were killing American soldiers, many of them traveling in lightly-armored Humvees that offered little defense from the blasts. Soldiers foraged on their own for scrap metal, in the hopes of shoring up their vehicles. The Pentagon set up a team to figure out how they could combat the IED epidemic; the task-force workers put up a sign on the wall that said "Stop the Bleeding."

The bleeding continued, but for several more years the Bush team didn't see the urgency. Military specialists and outside consults reportedly staged presentations on the IED issue for then-Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, the now-disbarred felon Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But the Bush team felt that training the Iraqi army was sufficient, and Cheney hewed to his belief that the insurgency was dying. These sentiments slowed Pentagon efforts to combat the IEDs by, among other things, investing in more solidly armored vehicles.

Result: In 2005, the Marines Corps' inspector general was still complaining that the 30,000 Marines in Iraq were traveling in vehicles that were no match for the IEDs. Part of the problem was that, faced with a weapon that nobody seemed to have anticipated during the runup to war, the government finally responded by flailing in all directions. At one point, 132 different government agencies were reportedly scrambling to address the IED issue, with minimal coordination among them.

The military during the past several years has become more adept at protecting the soldiers and tracking down IED bomb-makers - at a cost, during the Pentagon's current fiscal year, of at least $4.5 billion in off-budget "supplemental" funding - but, as recently as last May, the House Armed Services Committee still concluded that the anti-IED project had achieved only "marginal success."

And so the 4,000th soldier died, yet another facet of the failed Bush legacy.