Sometime over the weekend, halfway across the world, an American soldier became the 4,000th death recorded since the war in Iraq began in March 2003. It's still uncertain how history will treat this war. Let's just pray that we'll never write a story about the 5,000th victim.
Many armed conflicts - regardless of their origins - start with substantial public support and then fall from grace as time marches on. I doubt that was the case with World War II but it most certainly was with Vietnam. We're seeing the same in Iraq.
You can debate forever the merits of this current conflict. And given the presidential elections, rest assured, each aspect of this war will be dissected in the months ahead. But there's little merit to pointing a finger of blame. The goal now must be finding a solution to end this bloodshed.
Lost somehow in this presidential furor are the thousands and thousands of families and friends who have lost a loved one. If one candidate says these lives were lost without purpose, he or she will lose my vote. These ultimate sacrifices have and will continue to serve a purpose more noble than words can express. Protect and defend are not merely words but instead are a solemn promise that has provided a legacy for this country.
Let's be real honest here. Not one person reading this column knows the full extent of the truth surrounding this war. We have closely held beliefs and personal emotions. But the details of exactly why we invaded Iraq we know only from what we read and hear. The connection with the Sept. 11 tragedy, the discussion over weapons of mass destruction, the prospect of Iraq serving as a training ground for terrorists, the growing threat of nuclear weapons in that region - all discussion points or means of justification. But in the end, only history will truly explain why this great nation traveled around the world to protect and defend. Current measure of the reasoning to wage war puts the decision in that murky ground that divides this nation.
There will always be those who firmly believe our decision was to protect the flow of oil from the Middle East. To some, President Bush will be forever portrayed as protecting his oil company cronies with the blood of young American men and women. I suspect that history will prove that unfounded but it won't change minds. And despite a lack of mass destruction weapons, enough experts then and now believe they existed to fuel that debate for years to come.
Make no mistake. This is America's war. Our loyal British allies have lost 175 soldiers. The numbers' game may fascinate the public but that is not the purpose of this armed conflict. You don't claim victory in war simply because your enemy's losses are greater than your own. War is about change. And that is more difficult to quantify. Like countless others, I suspect that regardless of the end game of this war, the Middle East will always remain a hotbed of conflict. If history is a guide, then little will change in that region regardless of our efforts. But today's world is so much smaller than in the past. And conflicts elsewhere have a way of finding themselves to our doorsteps. It is a world role that we may not relish but we have accepted. And it won't end in Iraq. That much is certain.
The current presidential debate is focused on our own economy for the most part. It's much easier for the American public to understand their pocketbooks than to grasp this conflict on foreign soil. But as summer gives way to the fall, the war will return to center stage. It will be no more popular then than it is now. And despite the best efforts and the most sincere promises of the candidates from which we choose, it's doubtful that any solution will satisfy everyone.
When the campaign has run its course and the American public has had their say, the resolution to the war in Iraq will remain. And the one inescapable truth - regardless of the eventual outcome - is that to date, 4,000 young, bright, promising American men and women have given the ultimate sacrifice. Rhetoric won't erase that reality nor heal the wounds that remain. The campaign promises - and they are abundant - won't provide complete closure or a full explanation. And as it was in Vietnam, the American public will never fully agree on why we entered this conflict and whether that decision was right or wrong.
And yet I always return to those 4,000. And I wonder how their sacrifice will be viewed by future generations. It's a number I have difficulty grasping. Compared with past wars, these numbers are not large. But to play the numbers' game does a disservice to their sacrifice. And I won't play that game.
Let me, in my own simplistic way, help you. There are exactly 4,000 letters in the column you are reading. I know, I counted each and every one. It doesn't explain the sacrifice by any measure. But it helped me to understand the enormity of the loss. Maybe understand is not the right word. It just puts it in perspective. As I counted each letter, I tried to think of the sacrifice that each might represent. And still I don't fully understand. And though we can wrap our arms around a number like 4,000, it still hits home when we see it in black and white. It did for me!