Families Pay the Price

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

December 24, 2004

It's like watching your son playing in traffic, and there's nothing you can do." - Janet Bellows, mother of a soldier who has been assigned to a second tour in Iraq.

Back in the 1960's, when it seemed as if every other draftee in the Army was being sent to Vietnam, I was sent off to Korea, where I was assigned to the intelligence office of an engineer battalion.

Twenty years old and half a world away from home, I looked forward to mail call the way junkies craved their next fix. My teenage sister, Sandy, got all of her high school girlfriends to write to me, which led some of the guys in my unit to think I was some kind of Don Juan. I considered it impolite to correct any misconceptions they might have had.

You could depend on the mail for an emotional lift - most of the time. But there were times when I would open an envelope and read, in the inky handwriting of my mother or father or sister, that a friend of mine, someone I had grown up with or gone to school with, or a new friend I had met in the Army, had been killed in Vietnam. Just like that. Gone. Life over at 18, 19, 20.

I can still remember the weird feelings that would come over me in those surreal moments, including the irrational idea that I was somehow responsible for the death. In the twisted logic of grief, I would feel that if I had never opened the envelope, the person would still be alive. I remember being overwhelmed with the desire to reseal the letter in the envelope and bring my dead friend back to life.

This week's hideous attack in Mosul reminded me of those long ago days. Once again American troops sent on a fool's errand are coming home in coffins, or without their right arms or left legs, or paralyzed, or so messed up mentally they'll never be the same. Troops are being shoved two or three times into the furnace of Iraq by astonishingly incompetent leaders who have been unable or unwilling to provide them with the proper training, adequate equipment or even a clearly defined mission.

It is a mind-boggling tragedy. And the suffering goes far beyond the men and women targeted by the insurgents. Each death in Iraq blows a hole in a family and sets off concentric circles of grief that touch everyone else who knew and cared for the fallen soldier. If the human stakes were understood well enough by the political leaders of this country, it might make them a little more reluctant to launch foolish, unnecessary and ultimately unwinnable wars.

Lisa Hoffman and Annette Rainville of the Scripps Howard News Service have reported, in an extremely moving article, that nearly 900 American children have lost a parent to the war in Iraq. More than 40 fathers died without seeing their babies.

The article begins with a description of a deeply sad 4-year-old named Jack Shanaberger, whose father was killed in an ambush in March. Jack told his mother he didn't want to be a father when he grew up. "I don't want to be a daddy," he said, "because daddies die."

Six female soldiers who died in the war left a total of 10 children. This is a new form of wartime heartbreak for the U.S.

We have completely lost our way with this fiasco in Iraq. The president seems almost perversely out of touch. "The idea of democracy taking hold in what was a place of tyranny and hatred and destruction is such a hopeful moment in the history of the world," he said this week.

The truth, of course, is that we can't even secure the road to the Baghdad airport, or protect our own troops lining up for lunch inside a military compound. The coming elections are a slapstick version of democracy. International observers won't even go to Iraq to monitor the elections because it's too dangerous. They'll be watching, as if through binoculars, from Jordan.

Nobody has a plan. We don't have enough troops to secure the country, and the Iraqi forces have shown neither the strength nor the will to do it themselves. Election officials are being murdered in the streets. The insurgency is growing in both strength and sophistication. At least three more marines and one soldier were killed yesterday, ensuring the grimmest of holidays for their families and loved ones.

One of the things that President Bush might consider while on his current vacation is whether there are any limits to the price our troops should be prepared to pay for his misadventure in Iraq, or whether the suffering and dying will simply go on indefinitely.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com

Paul Krugman is on book leave.