I could be imagining it, but I thought I detected some notes of bitterness as Charles Gibson of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" interviewed the wife and twin brother of Chief Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman of North Carolina, one of seven or eight Americans killed on the ground in Afghanistan last Saturday. The family members said all the right things that military families are supposed to say – that their loved one died in a good cause, that it's important to keep the terrorists on the run, that their faith allowed them to believe that Stanley was in a better place now.
But I thought they were on the verge of a barely controlled "why us?" explosion. Or maybe not. But one could certainly understand some bitterness. Since Somalia in 1993, the United States, while hardly being shy about intervening in various disputes, has sought assiduously to avoid U.S. combat casualties. Even as commentators in various conservative and neoconservative organs bravely proclaimed that U.S. military strategists were underestimating the American people, that we were prepared to deal with combat casualties, American planners did combat conservatively, in an existential sense. We bombed from 15,000 feet in Bosnia and Kosovo, then sent troops mostly to places that were already secured, to do police and social-worker duty rather than combat. In Afghanistan we bombed first, then used the Northern Alliance as frontline troops. Even in the clean-up and chasing phase after the fall of Kandahar and Kabul, the U.S. tried to use local surrogates (and bombs, of course) rather than confronting fortified cave positions directly. THE OTHER POOR SON-OF-A-BITCH There's nothing terribly wrong with a policy of trying to minimize casualties. Most Americans are probably more than sympathetic to Gen. Patton as portrayed by George C. Scott, who cinematically reminded his troops that the idea of war was not to die for your country but to make the other poor son-of-a-bitch die for his country. Even if the cause is glorious, death in combat is far from pleasant or desirable. Those who remain behind when loved ones die may justify the death as being in a good cause, note that their beloved was doing what he was trained to do, and even feel a certain sense of pride. But at some level there is also deep-seated devastation as the realization sets in that the person to whom they had pledged their life will never return home. It has probably been wise for U.S. planners to try to avoid combat casualties, and until this past weekend they had been able to do so (assuming that even though those who die in training missions or simulations are gone just as irrevocably, somehow it seems different than being killed by an enemy). The American casualties in Somalia were politically intolerable (almost) because most Americans could see no relationship between those deaths and anything resembling a core national interest. And despite all the propaganda about genocide and Milosevic, few Americans identified a strong and compelling U.S. interest in Bosnia or Kosovo, beyond helping out the Europeans and being generic good guys. A DIFFERENT ATTITUDE? Apparently, however, it has become virtually impossible to rely on bombs and surrogates in Afghanistan. Among the stories that seem plausible – it might be months or years before reliable narratives can be assembled – the United States seems to have discovered in the Tora Bora campaign that when you pay ad hoc military groups to do the job, the job sometimes doesn't get done, and sometimes the money simply disappears. So the decision was made to put U.S. troops in the front lines, and when that happens casualties are virtually inevitable. I sense that at least for now the attitude toward U.S. combat casualties is a little different than toward tussles in Somalia, Bosnia and elsewhere. The United States was attacked on September 11, after all, and the evidence is that al-Qaida was at least a sponsor of that terrorism. As long as the United States is going after people with at least some plausible connection to the terror attacks, I suspect, the American people will tolerate some American deaths. I don't know of any reliable or scientific way to predict when the number of casualties might become intolerable to most people, if it ever happens. We were well on the way to the 47,393 Americans killed in Vietnam before opposition to the war became popular, or even generally acceptable. Some 109 Americans were killed in the Persian Gulf War, and few Americans consider that death toll unacceptably high. Things are a little different now even than during the Gulf War, however. We have already begun to see images of the flag-draped caskets on the way home. With several cable outlets doing news 24/7, every step of the process, from picking up bodies to placing them on airplanes for Europe or the United States, to interviews with grieving families and service buddies, all highlighted by commentary from supposed experts, will be played out repeatedly and almost interminably. It might even crowd out a couple of sensational trials for a few weeks. The impact might be intensified beyond what could be expected from sheer numbers of American dead. MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA If U.S. casualties are now to be expected in Afghanistan, and tolerated so long as there is a credible connection to the hunt for al-Qaida (and maybe even the elusive Osama bin Laden), one wonders how Americans will respond to what is beginning to look like a firm and relatively open-ended commitment to fight various guerrillas in Georgia, formerly a Soviet province but with a history that predated even Russian imperial domination, on the black sea between Russia and Turkey. Even the intelligence Web site Stratfor.com, which is hardly known as a pacifist outpost, suggested in its daily briefing last Friday, that "U.S. intervention in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia is not so much to fight terrorists but to establish a 'firm foothold' in the Caucasus region in order to protect its access to the vast oil reserves of the Caucasus and Central Asia, according to official Russian sources. The Voice of Russia World Service, an official broadcasting arm of the Russian government, characterized reports of an imminent U.S. Military presence in Georgia as 'shocking news.'" The U.S. media have been fed stories of legions of al-Qaida fighters taking refuge – and maybe even the elusive Osama! – in the rugged, 65-km-long Pankisi Gorge, and it may well be that there are some al-Qaida fighters there. But the region has long been a haven for guerrillas, smugglers and crooks of all kinds. It is likely there are Chechen fighters taking refuge there or planning new attacks in the region Russia insists must be kept part of Russia rather than gaining independence. And there seems to be some evidence – although it's a little tenuous – that a few more than a mere token number of those helping the Chechens have been Islamic militants, some with al-Qaida ties. But it is hardly the case that Georgia and its Pankisi Gorge are the world headquarters of a large, active, international terrorist organization that even now has the United States in its sights. GETTING INTO LONG-STANDING FEUDS The fighting and infighting in Georgia and surrounding regions is baffling in complexity and of considerable duration. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, is viewed as something of loose cannon by most Russians, and he is certainly capable of convoluted political plotting. And there are plenty of feuds and conflicts in the region that have little relationship to fundamentalist Islam or al-Qaida, but which U.S. forces could be drawn into easily. The sometimes reliable (sometimes not) Internet service DEBKAfiles even speculates that "when Shevardnadze knew U.S. Forces were coming to Tbilisi [Georgia's capital], these Russian officers contend, he opened the door for Chechen insurgents hiding in the Pankisi Gorge to skip with their al-Qaida comrades over to the Kodori Gorge on the Abkhazia-Georgia border. That move is seen as he opening shot in his plan to remove the Russian Army peacekeepers restraining the Georgians from attacking and reclaiming the breakaway province of Abkhazia and igniting another ethnic war." The point is that Georgia is a volatile region with plenty of political complications, few of which have anything to do with international terrorism or al-Qaida. Georgia itself may be playing the oldest game in the geopolitical quiver – bringing in the faraway great power to counterbalance the great power next door. Whether the American public will show tolerance for casualties in a conflict that is almost certainly a diversion from anything resembling a bonafide war on terror is a question to which we might have an answer sooner than we would prefer.