In a Murky and Distant War It Comes Down to Warriors

Henry Adams lobbied for the Spanish-American War for years, ghosting speeches for key Senators, plotting with fellow hawks like Theodore Roosevelt, even visiting Cuba, Spain’s prize possession in the Western Hemisphere. But once the guns went off, he lost interest in the details, assuming that the United States would win through an application of overwhelming force.

He was right. But the bottom line isn’t the only line. The first American battlefield casualty of the war was Sgt. Hamilton Fish, of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, or the Rough Riders, the regiment in which Roosevelt served as lieutenant-colonel. Spain’s inferior force managed to kill Fish and 15 other Americans at the Battle of Las Guacimas (literally, “the hog-nut trees”), shortly after the Americans landed in Cuba. Fish and his fallen comrades were buried quickly so that their bodies wouldn’t be eaten by buzzards and land crabs. Roosevelt took care to memorialize him in The Rough Riders, his war memoir.

Dwight Eisenhower had similar considerations in mind on the eve of D-Day. “He made certain,” wrote Stephen Ambrose, “that every soldier who was to go ashore on D-Day had the opportunity to at least look at the man who was sending him into battle; he managed to talk to hundreds personally.” Since thousands would die on the first day alone, hundreds was a fraction. But each man has only one life to give; it was worthwhile, Eisenhower knew, to speak to as many of them as he could.

Stateside journalists do not fight wars, but they write about them. My former managing editor at National Review, Priscilla Buckley, covered World War II for U.P. Radio, where she learned a lesson that she passed on to the interns and associates who later came under her eye: Never use “only” as a modifier in a discussion of casualties. Some bombing runs lost three-quarters of their planes; some lost one. Yet each of the airmen in the downed plane was a continent to his family.

Twenty Marines from the Third Battalion, 25th Marines, Fourth Marine Division, died in Iraq last week. In the aggregate—the Henry Adams view—they were indistinguishable from the previous 20 Americans to die in Iraq, or the next. But the concentration in time and place—most of the Third Battalion hails from Ohio, where it is based—makes them stand out, both as individuals and as symbols. Some of them came from Ohio cities everyone has heard of—Cincinnati, Columbus; some came from towns with all-American names (that is, names that might be found anywhere in America)—West Chesterfield, Grove City; some came from towns with the eclectic monikers of the Midwest—Dresden, Delaware. Their surnames were also an assortment. Some were the base coat of America’s linguistic paint—Bell, Hull, Reed; others were heartland Germanic—Bernholtz, Schroeder; one appeared to come from a more recent wave of immigration—Cifuentes. The New York Times recorded the reactions of the bereaved. “My son was the last of the John Waynes, but tougher,” said Timothy Bell, the father of Lance Cpl. Timothy M. Bell Jr. “We want people to see Augie’s picture and say, ‘Damn, that could have been my kid,’” said Rosemary Palmer, the mother of Lance Cpl. Edward A. Schroeder II. I have no kids, but an old friend of mine has a son serving in Iraq, while a young friend of mine is serving there herself. Both, as it happens, are Marines.

Political junkies, grabbing for their needles, note the eerie political importance of Ohio, the state that gave George W. Bush his Electoral College margin last year (his stolen margin, say the tinfoil hats). Ohio was also the site of this month’s special Congressional election, in which Republican Jean Schmidt beat Democrat Paul Hackett in the Second Congressional District (southernmost Ohio). Mr. Hackett, a lawyer and a Marine Reserve major, was an Iraq war veteran who blasted the Iraq war. Was the race a Republican victory because the Republican won? Or was it a Democratic victory because Mr. Hackett held Ms. Schmidt to 52 percent of the vote in a district that Mr. Bush carried by 64 percent nine months ago? The poll watchers, little Henry Adamses all—minus, of course, the genius—run their projections and await the next battle (of blogs and ballots, not bullets).

In October 1983, 241 Marines and sailors were killed in one day in the bombing of their barracks at the Beirut airport. America was trying to prop up a Lebanese government that would be independent of the Syrians, the Iranians and the P.L.O. We were not acting alone: Britain, France and Italy also sent troops. But the ghastly toll, and the seeming marginality of the mission, in a world in which much else was happening (the 82nd Airborne landed in Grenada simultaneously) made the Lebanon venture seem pointless. That was the conclusion of Colin Powell, who was then serving at the Pentagon as an assistant to the Secretary of Defense: “lives must not be risked,” Powell wrote, “until we can face a parent or a spouse or a child with a clear answer to the question of why a member of that family had to die.” It was also, for what it’s worth, the conclusion of a thirtysomething journalist in his first book: “Lebanon was murky, distant, and difficult,” I wrote. “After sixteen months the Marines went home, not a life too soon.”

Other days, other disasters. Lebanon certainly looked murky when the Soviet Union still had ICBM’s pointed at every major American city, and ours were pointed at theirs. In the context of the time, President Reagan was perhaps right to pull in his horns and focus on the main task at hand. Yet Middle Eastern fascists and Islamists took his prudence, and the prudence of President Clinton 10 years later when he withdrew from Somalia, as a sign that America would never fight, and therefore could be attacked at will. For all their ICBM’s, the Soviets never managed to kill a single American in all the cities they targeted. With only box cutters, the Islamofascists managed to kill almost 3,000.

In retrospect, their war against us has been long; ours against them will be equally long. The C.I.A. recently reported that Iran won’t have atomic weapons for another 10 years. Let us hope that the C.I.A., for once, is right; that will give us time to develop a political strategy for regime change in Iran, if anyone at the C.I.A. would care to do his job. In the meantime, the Iranian mullahs will be able to kill Americans only by supplying Iraqi terrorists with extra-strength anti-vehicle bombs. Better, in the Henry Adams view, than incinerating Cincinnati. Little different, from a parent’s view in West Chesterfield.

The war we are in is political, ideological and emotional: a war of incentives, trends, hearts and minds. But at crucial times, it comes down to warriors. The dead have not died in vain.