Commentary: Shame on them and shame on us

This week, the Iraq war claimed its 4,000th American killed in action, but that sad and tragic milestone came as the war seems to have slipped off the evening news, off the front pages and from the minds of the American people.

I suppose this benign neglect of so important and damaging an event is combat fatigue on the part of the public. No doubt the White House is happy to see Iraq shoved to a back burner, just as all three presidential candidates are relieved to talk about something else, anything else, but their half-baked ideas about the war.

Shame on them, and shame on us, for such callous indifference to the service, sacrifice and suffering of the families of the dead, wounded and injured troops who've given so much for so little in return.

Vice President Cheney again stuck both feet in his mouth by saying and then repeating that we should remember that our military is composed entirely of volunteers; that our troops all volunteered for this duty, this burden, this sacrifice.

What's your point, Mr. Vice President? That because they volunteered to serve our country in uniform it’s okay to squander their lives in a war of choice, your choice and your president’s, and that it somehow matters less than if they'd been dragooned into service by press gangs or a draft like the one you dodged with five deferments during the Vietnam War because, you said, you had “better things to do”?

The 58,249 Americans who were killed in the war of your youth had better things to do than rest under their white marble, government-issue tombstones. I’m certain, too, that the 4,000 Americans who've died in the war that you and President Bush launched five years ago for no good reason and several that weren't true had better things to do than die under your command.

No sooner did you and your boss begin celebrating “victory” in the surge in Iraq than new problems erupted in one of the most critical parts of the country, the southern Shiite Muslim city of Basra and nearby oilfields and ports.

Iraq government soldiers are fighting it out with the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr for control of Basra, and the truce that's helped keep a fragile peace in Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods began to unravel. Sadr’s militiamen rained mortars and rockets on the Green Zone — the headquarters of the Iraqi government and American diplomats and military commanders — as a pointed reminder of who still holds some good cards in this game.

Sadr turned off his murderous militia for reasons of his own last August, and casualty figures for American forces began falling sharply because Shiite militias were responsible for as much as 65 percent of U.S. casualties. If Sadr now turns his war back on, our casualty figures could rise as swiftly as they fell.

We'll get a good idea from the fighting in Basra about how strong the American-trained Iraqi Army really is as it goes up against Sadr’s militiamen. The Iraqi police — American-trained but heavily infiltrated by another militia, the Iranian-backed Badr Organization — ran for their lives early in the fighting.

By the time the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, arrives in Washington during the second week of April to report to the president and the Congress on the achievements of the surge, he may have less good news to report.

But none of this makes a damn bit of difference if most Americans don’t care and don’t want to know anything, good or bad, about Iraq, the war and our troops.

That's the sort of apathy and know-nothingness that elected and then re-elected Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. They're what happens when fewer than half the eligible voters in this great experiment in democracy and freedom even care enough to vote on Election Day.

Meantime, our volunteer troops — who comprise about one-half of 1 percent of our population of 300 million — soldier on, bearing the burden and making all the sacrifices on behalf of all the rest of us.

The war that Americans don’t want to know about drags on because its authors don’t care what you think or even if you think. In fact, they'd prefer that you didn’t think or ask any pesky questions that they can’t answer without lying.