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The Bodies Come Home

Administration sweeps American casualties in Iraq under the rug


President Bush does a good deal of traveling these days. He goes to London, where he is greeted by Britons protesting the Iraq war and occupation. He flies to East Asia, where there are more protesters. He wonders aloud about the angry crowds and asks his staff if they really hate "us" that much. At home he flies around the country on Air Force One, speaking to friendly diners at fundraisers for his planned $200 million re-election campaign -- about spreading democracy through the world, about his Medicare bill and energy bill and about the progress being made in Iraq. One thing he doesn't talk about very much is the casualties in Iraq. His aides say focusing on the American dead and wounded could create a negative state of national mourning; they say it could turn voters against him and the Iraq mission.

Regardless, the stories of the fallen are finding their way into American homes.

On June 15, army private Robert Frantz of San Antonio mailed a letter home to his mother. He apologized to her for not writing more often, explaining the time constraints of 12-hour guard shifts plus daily patrol duty. And then he wrote: "Someone shot at us last night. I was getting ready to go to sleep and I hear a pop, pop, and then the bullets ricocheted off the building right outside the window I was standing in front of... It kinda sucks, when all you can think about is there's someone out there trying to kill you or your buddy next to you, and all you can do is hope you kill them first." Robert, 19, was killed two days later when he was struck by a grenade.

The president is right to worry that his re-election could be impeded by a steady drumbeat of casualty stories. He and his aides have tried to muffle them, accusing the media of looking only for the bad news in Iraq. The press corps, not wishing to be seen as disloyal to Americans, has of late been seeking and finding more good-news stories. Still, there's really no way for professional journalists to leave out the bad things that keep happening. After all, these men and women in uniform are giving their lives. They are fine young Americans, behaving most of the time with honor, discipline, and the wish to do good.

In the approximately nine months of the Iraq war, roughly 450 American soldiers have died, 69 percent in battle and the rest in "non-hostile" incidents that include friendly fire, suicides, and vehicle accidents. Another 2,500 have been wounded, all but 360 in combat. An additional few thousand have been MedEvacked out of the country for treatment of illnesses; more than 500 in this group were listed as psychiatric cases related to "combat stress, depression, anxiety."

Those are the antiseptic statistics, which tell us almost nothing about these men and women. Yet, usually, the numbers are pretty much the extent of the casualty information we get from the government and the major media on a daily basis. Only rarely do we see photographs of those who have sacrificed for their country, or read narratives about their lives. It seems downright strange, given how important they are to the nation's leadership and direction.

In a letter on October 14, Private First Class Rachel Bosveld, another 19-year-old, wrote to her mom in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Rachel described how she got "pretty banged up" and lost some of her hearing when an explosion hit her truck, but wrote that she had recovered it. "I'm doing fine, Mom," she wrote, adding, "Right now I'm soaking my feet. My feet take a beating in these boots... Feels soooooo good now, anyway. I guess I haven't been taking as good care of myself this month... Well Mom, my 20-minute soak is up. Take care. I love you. Don't worry so much about me, Mom, my intuition has already saved a few lives here and my own as well." Rachel was killed in a mortar attack on October 26.

Yes, the next presidential election could indeed hinge on how successful these citizen soldiers are in bringing peace and stability to Iraq. With the exception of the British and some modest military units from the slender list of nations in our "coalition of the willing," few others are likely to join the US force of 130,000 to tackle this monumental task. The Americans and British fought well and swiftly to defeat the army of Saddam Hussein and capture Baghdad in three weeks. But the aftermath has not gone as well.

Transforming ages of feudal and dictatorial rule into a democracy is hugely more difficult than waging a lightning war with superior forces against a weaker foe. Doing it in a hurry is impossible. Generals have learned this through history. But the civilian leaders in Washington who pushed for this war had no such experience -- and few qualms about barging in unprepared. Planning for the occupation -- as all of us, including our soldiers, now know -- was virtually nonexistent.

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