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Dead for Nothing

07.03.2006 17:59 | DISPATCHES

Using the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade as his starting point, New Hampshire Gazette columnist and historian* William Marvel discourses on lives lost in the service of empire-building in "Ephemeral Empire" on

Empires of old, such as the British, he explains, have long ceased to exist and only their home countries, like the UK, remain. "All the imperial soldiers who thought they sacrificed their lives for the glory of the queen, the emperor, the sultan, or the czar literally died for nothing," he writes. The same fate, he warns, may await us.

While the Bush administration is guilty as charged when it comes to imperial ambitions, our troops' lack of clarity about what they're doing in Iraq would be laughable if it weren't tragic. Of course, any war that's neither defensive nor waged with the stated intention to "conquire"** another nation suffers from ambiguity. Recall the sinking sensation you experienced if you happened to read the results of the Zogby poll that revealed nearly 90% of our troops in Iraq believe their mission is to "retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9/11."

Whatever the troops' perceived reason for their deployment, their purpose soon became killing terrorists, if only to defend their fellow soldiers, as well as themselves. Aside from Saddam's men, Iraq was devoid of terrorists before our invasion and occupation. But ever since, an endless supply of them has been incubating and hatching, as well as streaming in from outside the country. Even though our troops have driven them out of cities like Fallujah and Tal Afar, once American backs were turned, they sneak back in.

Our troops have become like Charlie Chaplin in that classic factory scene in the silent movie Modern Times when he tries to keep pace with an ever-accelerating conveyor belt. We originally configured our Iraqi factory to crank out indigenous soldiers and police. But something went horribly wrong with the mold and instead we're manufacturing opposition fighters and terrorists. Worse, the production schedule spews them out at a rate with which our troops can't keep up.

Though suffering from misperceptions about their deployment, when they first joined the service, our troops were clear about their goals. They sought job training and a college education, not to mention a steady paycheck. You have only to hear an Army Ranger I know, who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, talk about his regiment as "my job" and his immediate supervisor as "my boss" to appreciate how dispassionate most today's young troops are.

It's tempting to yield to cynicism and argue that the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq are for naught. And it's true that their efforts have contributed little, if anything, to the safekeeping of our nation. The only consolation that remains to their families is the knowledge that they died on the job, like a worker killed by an injury in the workplace. Their deaths may be devoid of nobility, but the dignity implicit in all work is only magnified for those who die on the job.

*Marvel is known as the leading "contrarian historian" of the Civil War. His new book, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War (Houghton Mifflin), grapples with the questions "Tell me again why the South wasn't allowed to secede?" and "Exactly why did 620,000 have to die?"

**Thanks to Evay of


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