Sitting on a desk somewhere in the Pentagon is a computer printout listing projected American casualties for a range of Iraq invasion scenarios. Unfortunately, these vital figures are the only numbers that haven't been part of the war debate.
We've heard all kinds of estimates about how much the war is going to cost -- including Ari Fleischer's ultramacho Bullet to Saddam's Head discount special -- how many troops will be deployed, how much the price of oil may go up, and the over-under on how long our forces will have to remain in Iraq. We've been given head counts of Iraq's fractious Kurds and Shiites, reference numbers for security council resolutions defied, and been frequently reminded that Saddam has remained in power for 34 years, 11 of them since the last time we tried to send him and his mustache packing.
But no one in the Bush administration is talking about how many of our soldiers will be sent home in body bags. And not a single reporter has stood up at a press conference -- or at one of the president's countless fundraising appearances -- and asked, "Mr. President, how many young Americans are going to die?"
Will the deaths number in the hundreds, as was the case in Desert Storm and as would be again if Saddam collapsed like a cheap umbrella? Or will they be closer to the 10,000 to 50,000 some experts have predicted? And is Saddam the clear and present danger that would justify asking our sons and daughters to give up their lives for their country?
The question of casualties is all the more important given the weight attached to polls showing that over 70 percent of Americans support an invasion of Iraq. This purported groundswell of public opinion is being dropped like an old-fashioned "dumb" bomb to kill dissent on both sides of the political aisle.
Let's set aside for a moment the ludicrousness of basing our national security policy on the shoot-from-the-lip responses of a person who has been interrupted in the middle of dinner -- or a soapy shower or helping the kids with their homework -- and asked by a pollster, "Do you support the president's policy on Iraq?"
The fact is the number of Americans in favor of going to war with Iraq plummets -- down to only 39 percent in the latest Zogby poll -- when the prospect of "thousands of American casualties" is added to the question.
And such a bloody outcome is very likely given the kind of urban warfare it's going to take to oust Saddam. Forget about the caves of Tora Bora or the open desert cakewalk of the last Gulf War. Baghdad is a densely populated city of 4 million people -- roughly the same size as Los Angeles. Picture our troops having to battle their way down Hollywood Boulevard in search of a lone madman.
"We have to be prepared to fight block by block in Baghdad," says Gen. Joseph Hoar, the former commander in chief of the military's central command. "All our advantages of command and control, technology, mobility, all of those things are in part given up and you are working with corporals and sergeants and young men fighting street to street. It looks like the last 15 minutes of 'Saving Private Ryan'." Or every frame of "Black Hawk Down."
The high number of casualties that would result from gaining control of a heavily defended Baghdad is the main reason Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf and the president's father pulled up short of the capital city the last time we took on Saddam. And remember that Saddam is a master of that ruthless strategy of defense known as "the human shield." Even the smartest of bombs will not be able to discern between Republican guardsmen and Iraqi children. That will be the dangerous business of Army rangers, Marine expeditionary units and other special forces.
And unlike the Gulf War, which was primarily about the liberation of Kuwait, this war is about the elimination of Saddam. We've heard again and again that this ruthless despot will do anything, no matter how reckless or costly, to preserve his own regime. And we also know that he has been amassing stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, hideous high-body-count instruments disdained by the civilized world. You don't have to be George Tenet to connect these dots. Saddam will use whatever weapons he can in the impending fight to the finish. If he's going down, he's taking as many of us with him as he can.
"The likelihood is very good that he could use weapons of mass destruction," Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September. "It could get very messy ... The casualties, in my judgment, could be very high."
We are told by the proponents of invading Iraq that it's a bold step necessary to prevent future casualties. But in order to make an informed decision on the war, shouldn't the people also be told how many present casualties we will have to suffer in order to avoid these future ones?