One thousand three hundred and forty-seven days.
That's how long America was involved in combat in World War II, and Sunday, U.S. involvement in Iraq passed that "grim military milestone," as one TV anchor called it. This factoid has become a fixture of respectable talking points about the futility of the Iraq war. Newscasters and pundits note its gravity with sober foreboding and slight head-shaking.
What they don't note is the grotesque stupidity of the comparison.
Let's start with the obvious. America's involvement in World War II may have lasted 1,347 days, but it cost the lives of 406,000 Americans and wounded 600,000 more. Losses among Allied civilians and military personnel stretched into the tens of millions. Whole cities were razed, populations displaced, economies shattered. The number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq remains below 1 percent of our WWII losses.
World War II ended when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Were it not for those grave measures, the war might have lasted longer and cost many more lives. So maybe those wielding the WWII yardstick as a cudgel would prefer we gave Sadr City and Tikrit the Hiroshima-Nagasaki treatment? That would root out even the most die-hard insurgents and shorten the war. The phase of the Iraq war that was comparable to World War II ended in less than three weeks. Remember "shock and awe"? As far as such things go, the conventional war in Iraq put World War II to shame; the initial U.S. military victory in Iraq was akin to defeating all of Italy in less than a month.
The current phase of the Iraq war whether we call it post-occupation, reconstruction, civil war or whatever is really a separate war. It's at once a Hobbesian nightmare in which chaos rules and a complex, multi-front battle between regional factions and their proxies. But as insurgencies go, it hasn't lasted very long or cost very many American lives.
When people invoke the WWII analogy, what they really mean is that we've been in Iraq too long. Fair enough. But it's not clear that the chorus of tsk-tskers appreciate the implications of their complaint.
The man who probably deserves the most credit for the low number of American deaths in Iraq is Donald H. Rumsfeld. The outgoing defense secretary decided from the outset that U.S. forces would have a "light footprint" and would opt for surgical efficiency over the kitchen-sink approach of World War II. That approach, historian Paul Johnson writes, fit the "giganticist philosophy" of 1940s American capitalism. Leslie Groves, the Army engineer who directed the U.S. pursuit of the atomic bomb and who built the Pentagon, represented this mind-set. Groves was the anti-Rumsfeld. When he asked the Treasury Department for thousands of tons of silver for the Manhattan Project, he was rebuffed by some functionary, who said, "In the Treasury, we do not speak of tons of silver. Our unit is the troy ounce."
Groves got his silver because bureaucratic stinginess was not the way of war then. But it is the way of war now, particularly under Rumsfeld, who has applied the lessons of 21st-century micro-targeted capitalism.
Rumsfeld's way is better, at least on paper. It's better to have a long war with fewer casualties than a short war with more of them. That's why the World War II comparison is so frivolous: Days don't cost anything, lives do.
But it now seems that the light footprint hasn't made enough of an impression on Iraqi soil or Iraqi society. By trying to inflict as little collateral damage as possible, by trying to fight a war on the cheap, we inadvertently emboldened our enemies by what appeared to be a lack of will.
Given the enormous scope of World War II, it was a remarkably short war. (Just think of the Hundred Years War by comparison.) It was understood that total victory was the only possible outcome. Defeat was complete and surrender unambiguous. As a result, once it won militarily, America was able to bend exhausted and ruined Japan and Germany to its will, making them democracies. Even so, that post-combat phase took years.
When partisans claim that the American people are fed up and want our troops home, they're deliberately muddying the waters. The American people have never objected to far-flung deployments of our troops. We've had soldiers stationed all over the world for decades.
What the American people don't like is losing lives or wars. After all, you don't hear many people complaining that we still have troops in Japan and Germany more than 20,000 days later.