Friday, December 10, 2004

Iraq, War, and the Price of Democracy

There is an ongoing and interesting debate over at the Chronicle on Peter Beinart’s call for a new liberalism. There are several themes being discussed there and elsewhere that I would like to discuss over the course of a few post.

Iraq, War, and the Price of Democracy

In the media and in many liberal/leftist critiques, there is much pessimism about the war in Iraq. There have been many well documented mistakes in Iraq – lack of troop strength, the prison abuse scandal, and much more. However, what I think is lacking from much of this discussion is historical context, in particular a discussion of military history.

For instance, at Shiloh there were 25,000 dead or wounded combined in just two days (more casualties than the U.S. had experienced in all battles combined prior to this battle) there was criticism in the Northern press and descriptions of the horror of 1000’s of dead rotting in the muddy fields of Shiloh. But Lincoln did not stop the war there, even though the loss of life may well have justified it. And that was just the beginning of a long, bloody war (between 600,000 and 700,000 dead alone) that resulted in the end of slavery, the restoration of the Union, and the 14th Amendment, which applies the Bill of Rights and Due Process to the states.

In 21 months of fighting in Iraq there has been about 11,000 US and UK casualties (1500 dead and 9500 wounded) and approximately 15,000 Iraqi dead in 21 months. It is tougher to find figures for Afghanistan but as of 2003 there was about 400 US dead. Yet, in as has been discussed in earlier posts there is reason for optimism: a democratically elected government in Afghanistan--a major accomplishment, movement toward democracy and elections in Iraq, a brutal dictator (an estimated 1 million missing, 283 mass graves found so far) was removed from power.

Looking at another tragic loss of life, there were 42,643 traffic deaths in US in 2003. Would we feel our highways were a failure if everyday the New York Times listed the names of every person who died tragically (and in vain) in a traffic accident the day before, if every night the national news ran footage from the 116 fatalities that on average occur daily on US highways, nightly calling the highways death traps? There is not a daily outcry to stop traffic because of the number of deaths that occur. The prospect sounds basically absurd, and that’s because we have decided that in order to maintain our automobile culture we are willing to accept some deaths.

The fact there were almost as many casualties in one two day battle during the Civil War as there has been in 21 months in Iraq, or that more than 2 times as many people died in 12 months on US highways than have died in Iraq does not justify this war. However, I bring these numbers up because we are constantly being reminded of the death toll in Iraq, which we should be, as if this alone makes the war wrong, misguided, and a failure. But in context of other wars, or even day to day living, the loss of life is tragic but possibly acceptable. These discussions, these death equations, always make me uncomfortable, but I think we have to be brutally honest about these things, whether we like it our not everyday we make decisions about acceptable risk. We have accepted a certain number of deaths in the name of the car. What would be an acceptable level of death for democracy, to stop brutality?

We need to be reminded of the human cost of war. It would be wrong to ignore the brutality of war, the death and destruction wrought on civilians and soldiers. We have to be honest about the costs of military action. But we also have be honest, and ask ourselves what is worth dying and fighting for? I hate to be so simplistic and blunt, but if we are willing to accept 46,000 deaths a year so that we can drive to work, to the mall, to the grocery store in a peaceful and democratic society, how many deaths are we willing to accept, if any, so that others, as well as ourselves, might also enjoy freedom and democracy?

This leads me to two questions: Is democracy really emerging in Iraq? And, are there viable alternatives to military action that can be employed in other countries in the Middle East, an alternative vision or approach that will benefit countries like Iran? The first is a subject open to debate, but I think there is reason for cautious optimism. I plan to discuss the second in future posts.


At 11:37 AM, Blogger AK said...

I would question a few of David's presuppositions here. First off, shouldn't we be asking not how many deaths are "we" willing to accept but how many are the Iraqis? Framing the question as solely "our" concern strikes me as solipsistic. Al-Qaeda didn't point to the 9-11 deaths, contrast them to traffic accidents and tell the US to chill out. Deaths caused by, or in response to a foreign force, no matter how supposedly benign, redound quite differently throughout an occupied land. Violent deaths in Iraq since the invasion are impossible to calculate . . . too many of them are beyond any organization's capablities to uncover and correlate. Frequently, we'll be reminded of dark maelstorms of slaughter that rarely make the front pages, such as the crypto-Baathist purge against Bagdhad's "professional classes," which are causing too many educated elites to flee. According to one Bagdhad police chief in an article earlier this year in the NYT, 500 professionals were killed in a single month, and commnentators from the Likudite Daniel Pipes to the Shiite scholar Juan Cole noted that last Fall, Moqtada al-Sadr wiped out a village of a couple thousand Shiite Gypsies right under the noses of the Occupation. What other atroctities are being perpetrated oustide of the scope of Western media? The Johns Hopkins study (a University were Paul Wolfowtiz once taught) estimates that 98,000 Iraqis have been killed since the American liberation. Imagine if that is true (?), and put that horrendous number into this frame of reference: in ten years of fighting, America lost 58,000 troops in a lost war in Vietnam, a bitter defeat that STILL divides this nation. Imagine losing twice that number in under two years, from a foreign force on our own soil. Contextualizing the societal impact of mass killing under a foreign occupation should, at minimum, attempt to understand the perspective of the occupied.

Shouldn't an analysis of the democratic potential in Iraq look at the political forces set to win electoral power? Too often American analysts look at the military campaign and not who's ready to assume control of the National Assembly. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is the largest party, followed by the Shiite religious party Dawa. (Want to know SCIRI's agenda? Look to there name! Or check out there website.) Let's not forget that Moqtada al-Sadr, who vowed to be the Iraqi arm of Hamas and Hezbollah, looks like a possible democratic contender as well. As Spencer Ackerman has written in his blog Iraq'd on, the Shiite parties that are poised to win in January election (especially with a Sunni boycott) have a US withdrawal as their PRIMARY goal . . . and if that came to pass then the civil war against the Sunni can really begin. How quickly would the Bush administration honor such a request?

Analyses of the potential for democracy in Iraq should focus on the agendas of the dominant political forces, their views of religion versus secular society, state versus civil society, and their willingness to share power with a once dominant faction that has repressed them for so long -- the Sunnis. Which begs the question that is an even deeper precondition for a democracy: is Iraq a viable nation?


Post a Comment

<< Home