Putting Iraq Conflict in Perspective

By Stewart L. Udall

Santa Fe, N.M.

As we give thanks and praise to our soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice for their country it is time to put this conflict in historical perspective.

In a military and economic context, this has been the most unequal contest between important nations in the last century. On one hand, the economic superpower of this era, the United States of America, assembled and deployed the most massive, versatile fighting force that the world has ever seen. This juggernaut was pitted against a weak nation whose soldiers were equipped with antiquated weapons.

US forces had thousands of precision-guided cruise missiles; Iraq had none. The United States had the very latest bombers and fighter planes; their adversaries had none. Our army had the best tanks and armed vehicles that our industrial complex was capable of producing; Iraq only had a few obsolete tanks. In terms of the explosive power possessed by US -- i.e. the firepower to destroy civilian and military targets and to pulverize concentrations of enemy troops armed with rifles and a few grenades -- the firepower ratio may have been something like 20,000 to 1. The heralded "battles" were in fact a series of skirmishes that, by design, were based on plans to minimize battlefield casualties.

This has been the most over-reported, over-hyped conflict in history. Yet it has been presented to the American people and the world as a conventional war. Our leaders have assiduously pretended it is a WAR. But by any historical standard it is perverse to give it that name.

Since the military draft was abolished three decades ago memories of actual war have faded. Second-hand impressions of real war have filtered into the minds of Americans by watching movies and TV films. Now the government, aided by hyperactive journalism, has presented an unequal 26-day contest as a full-fledged WAR. However this exercise distorts history and blemishes the sacrifices of made by hundreds of thousands of young Americans who gave their lives for the country in the four real wars of the 20th century.

Now when some are celebrating a glowing victory, we need to remind ourselves of the realities surrounding those wars. Where World War II is concerned we need to remember that it lasted nearly four years, that 6,000 soldiers were killed on D-Day in June 1944; that 292,100 men did not return home when the war ended; that twelve million young men and women gave years of their lives to their nations as members of the armed forces.

We should remember, too, that over 50,000 died during the three-year-long Korean War and that much of that war involved combat by ground troops in close quarters.

Have we already forgotten the war in Vietnam? It consumed 11 years and the claimed the lives of 58,000-plus young Americans.

For all of these reasons please pardon some of us old-soldiers if we view the overblown claims of a "great" military triumph emanating from the White House with querulous disbelief. We prefer the modesty of our commander, Dwight Eisenhower. When the British honored him at the end of the European war Ike was filled with humility. With his soldiers and their sacrifices on his mind, Eisenhower said he was humbled by what they had accomplished. He elected to give thanks to all of the soldiers and civilians who had won the war, not to claim credit for victory.

Stewart Udall, 83, was the US secretary of the interior in the 1960s. He was a gunner on B-24 bombers in Italy in 1944.

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