Those who count the increasing number of American soldiers killed in Iraq are missing the bigger picture, retired Gen. Tommy Franks said Saturday night.

“What we’re talking about is neither 2,400, 24,000 or 240,000 lives,” Franks said at the National Rifle Association’s annual banquet. “Terrorism is a thing that threatens our way of life. It doesn’t have anything to do with politics.”

More than 2,400 soldiers have died since the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, the plan for which Franks developed and executed. He also oversaw combat in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I watched as America changed,” Franks said. “That’s not near done. We have to secure ourselves. We have to secure our Constitution.”

During his 30-minute speech, Franks took an occasional jab at the media and fellow generals for attacking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

“We haven’t got any generals here. They’re all in front of TV cameras complaining about Don Rumsfeld,” Franks deadpanned. “Difference is, I know what I’m talking about.”

Franks staunchly defended his friend _ even as he called him “grumpy” and “grouchy.”

“I don’t care about your politics. I don’t. Don Rumsfeld is an American patriot.”

Franks retired in 2003 after a 36-year career in the Army, highlighted by becoming commander of Central Command in June 2000. He received warm ovations from the 3,000 NRA members in attendance.

“It makes me think about going into politics,” Franks said. “The great blessing is that thought doesn’t last long.”

© 2006 The Associated Press