More Americans have now died in Iraq than in the Sept. 11 attacks. It's an essentially meaningless bit of news, but an oddly arresting one all the same. The figures and the circumstances are in no way comparable, and it's not as though passing this milestone somehow negates what had previously been a plausible justification for the war in Iraq, because there has never in fact been a plausible justification. The killing of three American soldiers in Iraq on Christmas Day is no more or less painful than the deaths of all the others, but in pushing the toll of war dead past the 2,973 who perished in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania more than five years ago it catches the eye anyway. Death for death, this war has now afflicted as grievous a national wound as 9/11 did.
But in so many other ways the damage is far greater. America has lost its friends and reputation abroad, stirred up enemies where previously there had been none, and is stuck in a disaster of its own making from which there is seemingly no way out. The full cost of the war in Iraq will be paid over many years to come - and the worst of it may still lie ahead.
Now President Bush is said to be considering a "surge," the idea being that 20,000 additional troops could make a big difference and pave the way to a resolution of the war. A generation ago this would have been called an "escalation," and the problem with escalations, as President Lyndon B. Johnson learned, is that when they don't furnish the promised results the pressure to follow with further escalations is just about inescapable.
Even if you call it a mere surge, it still raises the stakes. At what point would the surge recede? When would the administration decide it doesn't need those 20,000 troops there anymore? Conversely, when would the administration decide it has to send another 20,000 troops to Iraq to shore up the commitment represented by the first wave of the surge? And when would the American death toll be, say, double that of 9/11?
The strategists arguing for an escalation in Iraq seem to begin their reasoning this way: First, assume success. Then everything else should follow quite neatly and predictably. But the American people dropped that assumption some time ago, and they made it abundantly clear on Nov. 7. The war in Iraq has become a nightmare that is darker and more disconcerting than even the horrifying and wrenching events of 9/11 - and it is a nightmare with no end in sight.