It has become a morning ritual, like putting on a kettle of hot water for tea. I wake up, turn on the radio and listen for the casualty report from Iraq. Sure enough, there it is: two soldiers and eight Iraqis killed in Samarra, or three soldiers and six Iraqis killed in Fallujah. Then I look in the newspaper for the names of the US soldiers. While I don't have family serving in Iraq, I know many people who do. As I rifle through the paper, I pray that today's dead are not the children or spouses of my friends. But I realize that no matter what the name in the paper, each morning's death toll has brought terrible anguish to some family, somewhere.
"It's like a game of Russian roulette," said one of my friends whose son is serving in Iraq. "Every day we wonder if our luck will hold out, or if today is the day we take the hit."
Over 350 Americans have lost their lives since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1. In fact, more Americans have lost their lives since May 1 than during the war. And despite claims by the administration that Saddam's capture has allowed the US military to sweep up Baath loyalists who were attacking them, the attacks continue -- every day. The year closed with a total of 513 deaths, making it the deadliest year for the US military since 1972, when 640 servicepeople were killed in Vietnam.
I fear that the American people been lulled into accepting these daily casualties, processing them as lightly as they do the day's weather report or the sports figures. The fact that the media is banned from covering the flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base or that President Bush has not attended one funeral helps shelter the public from the true horror of this daily carnage. And just recently, the press stopped covering the soldiers' deaths as front-page news.
To the list of those killed we must add the wounded. As the year closed, over 8,000 soldiers had been evacuated from Iraq for treatment at the Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, where they arrive in the dark of night, hidden from the media. A new generation of young men and women living the rest of their lives in wheelchairs or coping with severe disabilities is another painful legacy of this military intervention.
What is perhaps most distressing for many of the troops and their families is that there is no timeline for their return. While the Bush administration has fixed a firm date for a transition to Iraqi self-rule on July 1, 2004, it intends to keep US troops in Iraq for years to come. Many military families are questioning that logic, particularly after the capture of Saddam Hussein. They say that their job has been done, and it's time for the Iraqis -- and the UN -- to take over.
Some military families who think this way joined me on a recent delegation to Iraq.
Anabelle Valencia braved the treacherous road to Saddam's birthplace, Tikrit, where her 24-year-old daughter Giselle was based. Giselle had been stationed in Germany before being deployed to Iraq; her mother hadn't seen her in three years. During their tearful but joyous reunion, Anabelle heard tales about how her daughter, who drives prisoners in convoys from Tikrit to Baghdad, narrowly escaped death one day when mines blew up all around her truck.
Mike Lopercio had a joyous reunion with his son, Anthony, who is stationed in another anti-American stronghold, Fallujah. But seeing the endless US convoys and patrols barreling through Iraqi cities and towns, Mike realized that the presence of US troops is actually fostering more and more resentment, and greater resistance. The longer they stay, the worse it will get. His son told him, "Dad, they hate us here, they think of us as occupiers and want us to go home."
Fernando Suarez had the most difficult journey of all. He traveled to the lonely, dusty desert of Diwaniya to pay his last respects to his son Jesus, who was killed on March 27 when he stepped on a US landmine. Fernando also visited US troops, schools and hospitals, handing out letters of peace and friendship from American schoolchildren. "I went to Iraq to say goodbye to my son, and to show my love for the Iraqi children and for the troops," Fernando said. "Right now, the best way we can show our love for the troops is to call on George Bush to bring them home."
This past year was a painful one for the thousands of families whose loved ones have died or faced hostilities in Iraq. Let's stop this daily anguish by ending the occupation of Iraq and giving our troops a chance to return to their families.
Medea Benjamin is founding director of the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org). Also see www.bringthemhomenow.org.