Americans appreciate an uncomplicated narrative, so we find an immediate appeal in a simple storyline like "The surge is working." However, the surge may not be working all that well for the families of the 29 American soldiers who were killed there in June. The previous month "only" 19 Americans died.
I suspect that nobody really knows which figure — 19 or 29 — is more accurately predictive of the future, but if we split the difference and project a bit, by the time of the inauguration next January, perhaps another 150 of our soldiers will have been killed in Iraq. If we’re lucky, maybe 100.
Then there’s the local boy who came home alive from Iraq last week with broken feet, broken heels, broken tibia and fibula in both legs, two broken femurs, and a broken back.
And the Iraqis? At least 546 died in June, a figure which, proportionate to the size of our population, would amount to more than 5,500 Americans.
Still, deaths and bombings have declined from previous high rates and it feels almost unpatriotic to suggest the surge isn’t a big success. And with gas prices going up and the economy going down, our attention is easily diverted. It’s easy to dismiss our dilemma in Iraq with a simple narrative about success.
But in our haste to embrace the idea that the surge is working, we may be giving too much credit to our modified military tactics. Many Iraqis have been forced to leave the country, and many of the ones who remain are segregated by massive concrete barriers. Our heavy military pressure may have placed a damper on some of the violence, but there’s not much reason to be convinced that the decrease is permanent. In fact, many of the fundamental issues in Iraq and in the Middle East in general are nowhere close to resolution.
In any case, lower death and bombing rates in Iraq are meaningless unless they continue to dwindle to close to zero. Even the strongest apologists for the surge have to admit that 29 or 19 American deaths per month, indefinitely, are still too many.
Nevertheless, the monthly toll of Americans and Iraqis is likely to tally up relentlessly as long as we’re in Iraq. No one has the energy or interest to impeach President George W. Bush for his malfeasance in office, and even his attention has turned away from Iraq and Afghanistan, where things are really falling apart. He shows more interest in Iran, where prudent Americans hope that he doesn’t take any drastic, lame-duck actions.
In short, Iraq has evolved into a holding pattern that’s likely to continue to produce some level of casualties until we have a new president.
What then? Sen. John McCain seems content to remain in Iraq more or less indefinitely, as long as no one is getting killed or hurt, a situation hard to envision. His comparisons to our extended presence in Germany, Japan, and Korea are inept and unrealistic, convincing only to Americans who are satisfied with a simple version of those situations.
Sen. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has campaigned on the promise to get us out of Iraq promptly. But he’s showing signs of reconsideration. Should he get into office, it’s hard to know what will happen when the general principles he’s running on come up hard against the reality in Iraq.
Because the reality in Iraq is the simplest story of all: a country’s foreign policy is nearly always driven by its desire for resources, and the United States is no exception. In fact, the one thing that’s clearly not in a holding pattern in Iraq right now is the effort to scale up oil production. And as long as our country depends on petroleum, a guiding principle of our foreign policy will involve some sort of active presence, military or otherwise, close to the source of the oil.
But this is a story that we’re reluctant to acknowledge, and both McCain and Obama will have an enormously difficult time changing our profound commitment to petroleum. Until this story begins to change, our presence in Iraq — and the casualties it entails — is inevitable.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)