US war deaths - were they worth it?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 May, 2010, 12:00am

As Americans honour those who died in their wars this Memorial Day, many will raise the inevitable question: has it been worth it?

In stark terms, how many mothers and fathers have asked themselves in the dark of night, their heads on tear-stained pillows, was it necessary for our son or daughter to die fighting for America?

For those who remember the 405,399 Americans killed fighting the Axis powers in the second world war, the answer is most likely an easy 'yes' because the Germans, Italians and Japanese of the 1930s and 1940s threatened to drive Western civilisation back into the Dark Ages. The Americans and their allies saved the Western world.

Only five years later, however, 54,246 Americans died in the Korean war of 1950-1953, which was followed by the cold war. In Vietnam, where 58,220 Americans were killed and 103,284 wounded from 1954 to 1973, the answer to the central question is more contentious. The US was divided as it had not been since its civil war, and was eventually defeated.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the US involvement in Vietnam is that the outcome didn't make much difference; America is no more or less secure today than it might have been had the war never been fought. Communist Vietnam does not threaten the US or its friends, and US interests in Southeast Asia proceed without hindrance.

Following the war in Vietnam, the US was engaged in a series of skirmishes, each of which took a small toll. Even so, the deaths of the men and women who died in Iran (8), Grenada (12), Lebanon (265), Panama (18), the Persian Gulf (383), and Somalia (43) were no less painful for their families, and continued to raise the central question.

Now the US is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with casualties reported daily by name. As of last week, 4,404 Americans - including 108 women - had been killed in Iraq and 1,076, including 20 women, had died in Afghanistan. So nearly 5,500 families are probably asking themselves: is America more secure for the death of our son or daughter?

It must be harder to answer that question today because the armed forces of the US are fighting those wars alone. Former US president George W. Bush and President Barack Obama alike have asserted that America is a nation at war, which is patently untrue. The army and US Marine Corps, and to a lesser extent the navy and air force, are at war but the rest of the nation for the most part goes about life as if Iraq and Afghanistan did not exist.

Senator James Webb was a decorated marine in Vietnam and later wrote a book, Fields of Fire, about that war, a passage from which applies to Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. A marine sergeant reporting in from the US tells his platoon leader: 'Lieutenant, you'd hardly know there was a war on ... Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids go to college. It's like nothing really happened, except to other people. It isn't touching anybody except us.' The sergeant had it exactly right, then and now.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington