If you've gone 100 miles, are you making progress? That all depends on whether you're going the right way. Evaluating the death toll in Iraq-over 3,000 Americans and many more Iraqis-requires similar questioning of the basics.
Think of World Wars I and II and the Cold War. Each had its death toll, but all deaths are not equal when it comes to public reaction.
The butcher's bill for World War I was huge: Ten million military deaths and a huge number of civilians as well. Both winners and losers soon looked upon the effort as a terrible waste.
World War II butchery was even worse-25 million military and 37 million civilian deaths, by one count-but afterwards the British remembered "their finest hour," Soviet subjects celebrated "the great patriotic war," and Americans honored "the greatest generation."
A big difference was the recognition of villainy. World War I, at least in retrospect, seemed a war fought over the ambitions of tsars, kaisers, and kings. In World War II, though, Americans and others realized that the villains-especially Hitler-had to be stopped, even if we had to become co-belligerents with another villain, Josef Stalin.
During two hot periods of the four decades of cold war devoted to stopping Stalin and his epigones, 100,000 Americans gave their lives fighting to a draw in Korea and failing to stop the Communist takeover of Vietnam. Still, their sacrifice gave countries like South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand time to make progress.
Given the enormous mortality rate in other wars of the past century, it's strange that 3,000 American deaths in Iraq have triggered such a reaction, especially since some of the villains we oppose are Hitleresque. But with our most influential media coming to the judgment (which some arrived at even before day one) that our efforts are doomed to failure, any number of lives lost seems too many.
Is the U.S. effort in vain? It's clearly made life in Iraq harder for many but better for others once persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Are more Iraqis and Americans dead now than would have been had Saddam remained in power and more terrorists had focused on U.S. civilians far away rather than Americans in uniform close by? We'll never know.
One of my favorite movies is The Great Escape, a 1963 action-adventure film based on the real-life escape of 76 POWs from a German stalag in 1944. Hitler's henchmen recaptured 73 of the 76 and shot 50, including the officer who had planned the escape. But the movie instructs us that the effort was not fruitless: "Roger's idea was to get back at the enemy the hardest way he could. Mess up the works. From what we've heard here, I think he did exactly that."
The U.S. effort in Iraq has gotten back at terrorists and messed up the works. Has it been worthwhile? At the end of The Great Escape, when one officer asks the other if he thinks the harm to the German war effort was worth 50 deaths, the first replies, "I suppose that all depends on your point of view."
The Christian point of view regarding deaths in wartime is sometimes wait-and-see. After all, Christ's apostles thought they had lost their war with Satan when Jesus seemingly perished. Soon they recognized that the sacrifice was the cornerstone of God's plan.
As the apostles one by one died under enemy fire, some thought their sacrifice in vain, but Tertullian around a.d. 200 recognized, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Speaking more generally about what we know and what we don't, Francis Schaeffer once said, "We only see the debit side of the ledger now. We don't see the credit side yet. When we see the whole ledger we will say, 'Oh, why didn't I see it that way before?'"
I don't want to be glib in moving from martyrs' deaths to the deaths of our soldiers fighting against terrorists-but we want them not to have died in vain. Did they? In 50 years we'll know, but no one now can absolutely, positively say yes or no. That's what makes a president's job so hard.