- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

At the first anniversary of the war that removed Saddam Hussein and set Iraq and the rest of the Middle East on a dramatically new path, about 400 American men and women have been killed in action.

Each of those lost sons or husbands or daughters is a source of heartache for their families, and for all Americans. They’re also a reminder that, as the saying goes, “Freedom’s not free.”

Right back here in our own land, about 300 defenders of public safety (cops, firefighters, prison guards) sacrifice their lives every year while protecting the domestic tranquility of our streets, homes and gathering places.

That’s 3,000 traumas per decade, a bill paid less visibly than war deaths, but just as inexorably. Both sorts of losses are part of the blood price of keeping our civilization secure.

Those dead defenders are the reason all decent Americans stand, snatch off their hats and place their hands on their hearts when old soldiers or officers of the peace walk down our streets at Memorial Day parades or July Fourth celebrations. We honor those who bear physical risks for the rest of the country precisely because we know these are not theoretical dangers, but real perils that claim a considerable number of our bravest citizens each season.

The Americans who have given their lives in battle in Iraq aren’t random victims. They were doing their duty in one of the great turning points of our generation.

I reached voting age about the time of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. What an excruciating episode that was: 52 Americans held against their will, publicly taunted and humiliated day after day, our government paralyzed.

And that was just the opening salvo for a generation of Middle Eastern extremism. There was the Beirut barracks bombing that killed 243 Americans. Then the Berlin discotheque blast. The slaughter of 270 innocent people on the terrorist-downed Pan Am Flight 103, followed by hundreds more on other sabotaged airplanes.

In 1990 came Iraq’s rape of Kuwait, and the high costs in blood and treasure of reversing that dangerous thrust. Next was the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center, in 1993, to which the U.S. made no effective response at all.

Two months later the Iraqi plot to assassinate President Bush was uncovered. Then came the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, murdering American servicemen as they slept. Al Qaeda killed 18 GIs in Mogadishu, then hundreds in the suicide bombings of U.S. Embassies in Africa.

The near-sinking of the USS Cole claimed 17 sailors and tens of millions of dollars. And, finally, the singeing, infuriating horror of September 11, 2001 — with all the psychic, economic and social trauma that followed.

Looking back, it’s clear we Americans were slow on the uptake, that we failed over and over to recognize this was not a part of the world we could just ignore in the hope it would leave us alone. Only after repeated woundings, followed by one of the ugliest maulings Americans have suffered in their entire three-century history, did we realize this is a chaotic, hate-filled and violent region that urgently needs to be brought to order by more responsible forces.

Allowing the various zealots who populate the Middle East to continue their maraudings against the rest of the world could, within just a few years, lead to the sort of unimaginable holocaust that suicidal fanaticism and modern weapons are now able to produce in combination.

International inspectors were taken aback in early 2004 by how far along the Libyan and Iranian nuclear programs were. At the same time we learned the father of Pakistan’s “Muslim Bomb” has been selling nuclear secrets even to psychopaths like North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. What other surprises await?

A defanging of the Middle East would be a historic event of enormous consequence. And while transforming the Arab world is undeniably a difficult venture, it’s no more unlikely than other conversions we’ve witnessed recently.

In the early 1970s, there was a grand total of 40 democratic societies across the globe. Democracy, it was said, simply wouldn’t grow in certain kinds of soil.

Then stony lands like Portugal, Spain, Greece, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, nearly all of Latin America, all of Eastern Europe and South Africa began to hold free elections for the first time. Many of these dramatic turnovers took place in a blink.

Today, just 30 years later, there are 120 democracies, and the fraction of the world’s population able to elect its own rulers has increased from one-third to two-thirds. There is nothing absurd about the idea the Arab lands should be next; in fact, there are many good reasons to press energetically in that direction.

The unprecedented security, freedom, wealth and opportunity Americans now enjoy didn’t just burst forth out of a cabbage patch. These achievements were created, and then defended many times by bloody force of arms. If contemporary Americans aren’t sturdy enough to bear the sacrifices and sadness occasionally required in defense of our rare way of life, we don’t deserve our inheritance. That is the cold, undodgeable reality we face today in the Middle East.

I recently spent my third month embedded with American combat troops in Iraq. The military men and women with whom I shared my late-January flight back to the U.S. from Baghdad were mostly headed home on emergency leave.

A major lost a grandfather. A sergeant based in Germany was going to collect his family, then fly to Arizona for a relative’s funeral. A private quietly explained that his wife, six months pregnant, hadn’t felt their baby move for some time, went to a doctor and learned they had lost their first child. “I’m still in shock. We struggled so hard to conceive.”

Not only in war, but also in the safety of our homes, life can often be hard. It is always fleeting. Its meaning comes, ultimately, from the ends toward which the life is dedicated.

There are times when the best, perhaps the only, response to hard blows is to embrace each lump as a badge honoring the determined striving that produced it. In 1918, Teddy Roosevelt’s son Quentin (who had left Harvard during his sophomore year to serve in World War I) was shot out of the sky in one of aerial warfare’s early dogfights. German propagandists took photos of his maimed body amidst the plane wreckage and, hoping to dampen American morale, sent one to Mrs. Roosevelt.

Rather than letting herself be cowed, however, she insisted the picture be displayed over a mantel, as an emblem of her family’s sturdiness and their pride in sacrifice for a high cause.

What Edith Roosevelt did was both a very hard and a very soft thing. She pushed aside her own grief and expressed admiration and undying love for her son by celebrating his bravery and refusing to abandon his fight.

As they aggressively attack ancient evil and gently nurture frail shoots of a new good, our military forces face many risks in Iraq. They have enemies who aim to kill them, and to panic the American public standing behind them. Our battle against Middle Eastern extremism can thus be seen a struggle of wills.

But demoralization can work both ways, and today it is Iraq’s insurgents who face physical and psychological defeat. In January, U.S. forces seized a letter written by al Qaeda’s mastermind in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as it was being carried to top al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan.

The 17-page document despairs that despite their deadly car bombs and the sporadic killing of U.S. troops, the fighters have been unable to push the Americans from Iraq or to spark mass discord among Iraqis. The letter reports the insurgents have trouble convincing Iraqis to join their resistance and mourns that American forces are “growing stronger day after day.”

Al Qaeda itself is now in shambles. Two-thirds of its leaders have been killed or captured, finances have collapsed, communication has been strangled, recruiting is difficult.

Iraq’s Ba’ath Party has likewise been eviscerated. And other bullies in the region have turned skittish and newly cooperative.

While the U.S. will need to grapple against terror for years to come, it is finally on offense, not defense. Having brought the battle to the plotters in their own strongholds, things fortunately have turned quiet at home. And across the Middle East, the most desperate effort of a range of terrorists is now to avoid U.S. forces.

“We are at a breaking point today,” Col. Kurt Fuller of the 82nd Airborne told me in Baghdad, leaning forward for emphasis. “This insurgency is running out of steam. We see many signs that Iraqis want the violence to be over. They want to get on with their lives. They can see we are not quitting, and they are increasingly willing to come forward and help us stand up to the worst elements in their society.”

As my reporting in the April/May issue of the American Enterprise demonstrates, this progress has been won by thousands of U.S. soldiers doing their duty in Iraq. If Americans at home will exhibit the tough love of the steely Mrs. Roosevelt — celebrating the accomplishments of our sons and daughters by cherishing their sacrifices on our mantels, and multiplying and extending their courage by refusing to abandon the struggle they wage — this is a fight America will certainly win.

Karl Zinsmeister is editor in chief of The American Enterprise (TAEmag.com), and author of “Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq.” His book about the guerrilla phase of the Iraq war, “Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq,” will be published in June.

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