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One Last Thing | British battle can offer us a perspective on casualties

If you were forced to pick a precise time and place the people of Britain began the slow process of discarding their mantle of empire, you might well choose 1916, at the Battle of the Somme.

If you were forced to pick a precise time and place the people of Britain began the slow process of discarding their mantle of empire, you might well choose 1916, at the Battle of the Somme.

The Somme was the inspiration of British Gen. Douglas Haig, who had just won his way to command by poor-mouthing his superior, Field Marshal John French, to the king of England. In the course of this disparagement, Haig suggested himself for the job and got it. Somme was his first major undertaking.

The battle began on July 1, in northern France, where Haig sent 19 British Imperial divisions (and three French) against a heavily fortified, 25-mile section of the German line. Haig had spent a week bombarding the German positions before starting the attack. He was so confident in his plan that British troops were instructed not to fire and move - a slower, more cautious tactic - but instead to march toward the enemy upright, in straight lines.

The bombardment failed; the German defenses held. Only five of the British divisions made it as far as the German lines. The rest were shot dead in their own territory or cut down in no-man's-land. Roughly 100,000 British men marched to battle; 20,000 were killed that day. And 40,000 were wounded. Virtually no advance was made into the German position. The military historian John Keegan recounts that the next day Haig "was still uninformed of how great the casualties had been and discussed, as a serious proposition, how the offensive was to be continued, as if it were a possibility for the morrow or the day after."

Here is what Haig told his staff on July 2: The enemy "has undoubtedly been severely shaken and he has few reserves in hand." In reality, the Germans had lost far fewer men (6,000 as compared with 20,000) and had ample reserves.

The weeks ground on and the battle continued. By the time the action ended, on Nov. 19, the farthest point of British advance was all of seven miles from their original front line. By that time the United Kingdom had lost 419,654 of its men at the Somme; the total population of the empire was just over 45 million. Pause for a moment to appreciate the gruesome math: 1 percent of Britain's total population sacrificed for seven miles of useless ground.

It was in the aftermath of Somme that the British mind first began to flinch at the price of empire. Within 20 years the British would be actively turning a back on the world, allowing slaughter to bubble forth from Germany again.

The British may have been unwise to abdicate their duties as the indispensable nation, but it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the mistake.

With the Somme in mind, it is interesting to consider Iraq today and wonder if this will be the moment when Americans begin to ponder putting aside the burdens of their empire.

The debate in recent weeks has been over the ways in which Iraq compares to Vietnam. Part of this debate must be on whether the toll in American lives has been too high to justify continuation of the struggle. But leaving aside the public's other concerns - in other words, considering the war qua war - it is difficult to understand how the current American death toll can be considered too high.

Every drop of American blood is a precious treasure; our 3,732 dead (since March 20, 2003) should be revered. But that number is small by historical standards. People are generally familiar with the big wars: 405,399 American dead in World War II; 116,516 dead in World War I; 58,209 dead in Vietnam. But 36,574 of our soldiers died in Korea, and 13,283 died in the Mexican War. Two other wars, the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War accumulated significant casualties (2,260 and 2,446 dead, respectively) despite involving military forces less than a tenth of the size of our current one. Between 1899 and 1902, 4,324 American soldiers died in the Philippine-American War. Perhaps they no longer teach these things in school.

It's a stern tally, 3,732 dead - but what number would be acceptable? 2,000? 500? 40? As Leon de Winter recently observed, around 170,000 Americans died in traffic accidents during the last four years. It is strange that we shrug this loss off - no one is demanding we ban the automobile - yet the casualties in Iraq are used to argue that the project must be abandoned with no further consideration.

One of the many dispiriting exhibitions of the last four years has been the American public's amnesia concerning the nature of war. Countries that shoulder the load of global leadership must, from time to time, fight wars, and wars are unpleasant things. Poor leaders, such as Gen. Haig (or Donald Rumsfeld), often make matters worse. And in wars soldiers die. The cost of Iraq has been great. But in the context of the rest of America's wars, it has been, comparatively, less horrible.

There are honorable, perhaps persuasive, reasons to think our Iraq project wrong-headed, counterproductive, or even deeply, conceptually flawed. But if the public's sole reason for turning on the war is the cost in lives - as much of the criticism suggests - then America has already fought its Somme, and our fortitude is on the wane.