In any discussion of the war in Iraq and its consequences, it is obligatory for everyone to acknowledge the sacrifices required of the men and women who have been sent there. More than 2,500 of them have died and about 18,000 have been wounded. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among those who have returned has been estimated to be as high as 20 percent.
I was a soldier once in a war similar in many respects to this one. Like members of our current military, I was a volunteer. I remember that when I returned from Vietnam, I was struck by how little society knew or cared about what was happening there. I didn't expect anyone to understand or be grateful for what I had done because it was apparent to me that the nation had not benefited from my service. No one was any safer. Our freedoms were no more secure. I never felt that the lives of the Vietnamese had been materially improved by our efforts. Quite the contrary, our primary gifts to that small country had been death, destruction and a flourishing sex industry. I came away from the experience believing that the American lives I had seen lost were wasted sacrifices. We who had served had been betrayed. Why would I expect a grateful homecoming?
When I saw what the war in Vietnam was really like, I wrote to my wife in a "letter to be opened in the event of my death" that she was not to accept any medals and, above all, I was not to have a military funeral. I could not abide the prospect that my flag-draped coffin might serve as a justification for further bloodshed.
Now I see this pattern repeated. The difference from Vietnam is that we appear determined to reassure our troops of our continued support and gratitude.
As with Vietnam, we try to avoid the obvious question: Which of our liberties are at stake in Iraq? The stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction weren't found, and al-Qaida made an appearance there only after we invaded. Does anyone really believe that we are about to witness a flowering of democracy in the Middle East? Is Osama bin Laden now less likely to attack us here?
The troops who are fighting this war are volunteers who freely chose the military for reasons that seemed adequate to them and who are now doing what soldiers do. A small number of them have, in fact, disgraced us all with their cruelty and contempt for the Iraqi people. Some of them, it appears, have committed war crimes.
The majority, no doubt, have acquitted themselves bravely in the performance of their duty. Whether this has contributed in any way to the welfare of either this country or Iraqis is doubtful. They are men and women doing their dangerous jobs as well as they can, like firefighters or police officers. Each of their deaths is a tragedy, but not more so because they were wearing a uniform when they died. I am a parent twice bereaved, so I know this: Death is random and implacable however and wherever it occurs.
The fundamental values on which the nation was founded have been distorted by this administration under the cover of its endless "war on terror." In May, President Bush assured the graduates at my alma mater, West Point, that "this war began on my watch but it's gonna end on your watch." This idea of perpetual war and the abrogation of our civil liberties are what we ought to be worrying about, not whether we are sufficiently honoring the soldiers dying in Iraq. How about honoring them by removing them from danger?
It can be argued that no life is vainly given if the person who lays it down believes the sacrifice worthwhile. By this standard, at least some of the lives lost in this war have been redeemed. We cannot interview the dead, and the families I have heard are divided in their responses to this question. But to ask such sacrifices of our fellow citizens, there must be a defensible belief that some worthy national objective has been served.
Who can say that about this war? Must we, as our leaders tell us, suspend judgment to await the verdict of history? The deaths are now; the grief is now. We must therefore decide now if we are being played for patriotic fools by people willing to risk our children in this cause but not their own.
Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is the author of "And Never Stop Dancing." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.