How Many... If Any... Died in Vain?

The magic number is 2,973. So much has been made over the past few days about the fact that military deaths since 9/11 have now surpassed the death toll that awful day in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93. Calvin Woodward's piece for the Associated Press, which drove a lot of this coverage this past weekend, put it cryptically: "Not for the first time, war started to answer death has resulted in at least as much death for the country first attacked, quite apart from the higher numbers of enemy and civilians also killed. Historians say this grim accounting is not how the success or failure of warfare is measured, and that the reasons for conflict are broader than what served as the spark."

The historians are right. It is mostly inapt to compare the civilian deaths on 9/11 with the military deaths since and certainly unfair to imply or suggest that America has necessarily failed by allowing the latter to surpass the former. The two casualty lists do not belong in the same morbid equation of death. Instead, like algebra, the equation is open-ended and one-sided. Our brave soldiers have died over the past five years not just to ferret out and punish those who committed the worst crime in American history on September 11, 2001. They also have died to prevent a future attack, or series of attacks, that might kill more. And in that equation, there is simply no way to know when (if ever) one equals the other.

Has the Administration's Iraq policy increased the military toll beyond where it would have been had we simpled stopped after the invasion of Afghanistan? No doubt. The War in Iraq has resulted in ten times the number of deaths from our similarly dicey venture in Afghanistan. Has that increased toll-- has the work of and the death to military personnel in Iraq-- spared us from another major attack since 9/11? The Administration's political wing says yes-- what else could the dubious architects of an unpopular war say in their own defense? But a "National Intelligence Estimate" compiled by the country's leading anti-terror groups concluded recently that the war in Iraq has increased the number of "terrorists" and thus made terrorism worse.

The White House doesn't have to justify to me how it could come to pass that we could lose as many soldiers fighting the war on terror as we did civilians on the day the Twin Towers fell. Wars cost lives and defending ourselves from terrorists was never going to be easy. But it seems to me that President Bush and his tribunes have to explain to the nation just precisely how and why approximately 2,700 (and counting) members of our military did not die in vain or, worse, did not die in a war that has made us worse off than we were before. That Estimate is going to be the subject of much political debate and spin over the next few days. Hopefully some candor will seep through, too.

By Andrew Cohen |  September 25, 2006; 4:00 PM ET
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