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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Jonah Goldberg Argues that Rumsfeld Saved Lives

Jonah Goldberg has a piece where he argues that comparisons between Iraq and WWII are off base, because the casualties in WWII were so much greater. Like all Goldberg pieces, he begins with a valid point -- which he uses as an excuse to take a romp into Crazytown. He's like George Will with ADD -- one minute you're reading about how the economy might not be as bad as people think, the next you're reading that there's no poverty in the US because almost everyone has a toilet.

This week's column wasn't that funny, but it was funny. First, his seeming point:

Let us start with the obvious. World War II may have lasted 1,347 days, but it cost the lives of 406,000 Americans and wounded 600,000 more. Losses among Allied civilians and military personnel stretched into the tens of millions. Whole cities were razed, populations displaced, economies shattered. The number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq remains much less than 1% of our WWII losses.

True enough. But later we go into Crazytown, where Goldberg's point really lives:

The man who probably deserves the most credit for the low number of American deaths in Iraq is Donald H. Rumsfeld. The outgoing Defense secretary decided from the outset that U.S. forces would have a "light footprint" and would opt for surgical efficiency over the kitchen-sink approach that characterized World War II. That approach, historian Paul Johnson writes, was of a piece with the "giganticist philosophy" of 1940s American capitalism. Leslie Groves, the Army engineer who directed the U.S. pursuit of the atomic bomb and who built the Pentagon, represented this mind-set. Groves was the anti-Rumsfeld. When he asked the Treasury Department for thousands of tons of silver for use in the Manhattan Project, he was rebuffed by some functionary, who said, "In the Treasury, we do not speak of tons of silver. Our unit is the troy ounce."

See, this argument for the superiority of the Rumsfeld's genius over WWII planners has one little, tiny hitch -- we won WWII and Iraq's FUBAR.

Even worse, Rumsfeld's idea for a light force left us chasing around putting out fires. There's a big difference between capturing and holding. Rummie's blitz ideas had us taking towns, then rolling off in a triumphant cloud of dust, leaving them unoccupied. We'd fight the battle of Fallujah, then leave. The insurgents would return, retake the city, and we'd fight the battle of Fallujah again -- and again and again. It was this idiocy that left munitions stockpiles unguarded. They were, predictably, looted. Rummie's complete incompetence cost lives in Iraq by arming insurgents and giving them free reign.

What's the real difference between Iraq and WWII? What makes the casualty numbers so different? A skinny moment's thought comes up with a few obvious answers -- no insurgent airpower, no insurgent armored divisions, no insurgent navy, no insurgent industrial might. Pretty much none of the stuff they talk about on The History Channel. An IED is deadly, but tons of bombs dropped from aerial bombers is worse. It's hard to compare an artillery shell with a cellphone trigger to clouds of bombers raining indiscriminate death from above.

Another reason is that it's the 21st century, not 1944. We've got fancy things like kevlar and medical technology that WWII field hospitals could only dream of. In Jan. 2006, ABC News reported, "In World War II, 30 percent of all injured troops died; 24 percent died in Vietnam. In Iraq, just 9 percent of the injured lose their lives. Improved body armor and advances in battlefield medicine have saved countless lives." This is why the signature injury of the Iraq war is the brain injury. ABC News, again:

Researchers who examined records at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., found that every patient who was exposed to a blast was evaluated for traumatic brain injury. They found that 59 percent of those evaluated sustained a traumatic brain injury and that 56 percent of those cases were considered moderate or severe. Usually, the Army finds that 20 percent of those evaluated actually sustain traumatic brain injuries, according to the Army's public affairs office.

The reasons for the increase are somewhat complicated. Improved body armor and helmets are effective in shielding the wearer from bullets and shrapnel; that improves overall survival rates. But the helmets cannot completely protect the head, neck and face. They have, however, reduced penetrating injuries, in which shrapnel pierces the skull. Yet helmets are much less effective against closed brain injuries, which result from the enormous concussive force from an IED explosion. The explosion can damage the brain all by itself or can damage the victim's brain by slamming him to the ground or into a vehicle. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, "approximately 8 [percent] to 25 percent of people with blast-related injuries die."

So much for Rumsfeld's genius. On the bright side, Goldberg's reputation as a nutcase remains unsullied.


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