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Will resolve stay strong when our soldiers die?

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002


The first thing you notice in Tony Sledd's photograph is his somber look. His dark eyes stare straight ahead out from under the visor of his white hat. There's not even a trace of a smile. In the photograph, he is all business, and his business is all about strength and might.

But nothing in that classic Marine Corps pose could mask his youth. You see it in his long narrow face, his skinny neck. His boyhood was just behind him. He had been out of high school only two years. He didn't join the Marines out of some great need to crusade. He wanted a way to pay for college.

Lance Cpl. Antonio Sledd was 20 when he was killed last Tuesday by a terrorist's bullet during a training exercise in Kuwait. His mother asked President Bush to come to Tampa for the funeral.

The president has declined. He is busy making plans for war against Iraq. Unlike presidents before him, Bush is planning to strike first. Unlike any president in the last 40 years, he is planning a war where our casualties may be terribly high.

Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers died the last time we fought up close and on the ground, in Vietnam. The steadily rising body counts of those years helped spread discontent about the war and cut short the career of President Lyndon Johnson.

Ever since, it has been an axiom of our politics: America will only go to war when the risk to all our Tony Sledds is low.

This is an absurd notion if you think about it for more than five minutes. Nevertheless, our presidents and our generals have used it as a guiding principle. We have only fought in what you might call clean wars.

Over a half-million Americans were sent to conduct the first war against Saddam Hussein, the 1991 Gulf War. One hundred and forty-six were killed in a war that was conducted largely in the air.

The pattern repeated itself in other countries, other years.

Americans went to Lebanon in 1982-84 to help stabilize the country. Terrorists blew up an American barracks. Two hundred and fifty-six Americans were killed. The United States quickly retreated.

Eighteen Americans died in Grenada in 1983.

Two airmen were lost during the bombing of Libya in 1986.

Twenty-three Americans were killed when we invaded Panama in 1989.

U.S. troops went to Somalia in 1992-94. Twenty-nine were killed.

I bring up Bosnia, which we bombed heavily in 1995, only to acknowledge it as one of our battlefronts since Vietnam; no Americans were killed in the Bosnian campaign. Same goes for Haiti, which we invaded in 1994-95. No Americans died in combat.

Despite our chest pounding hype about nailing Osama bin Laden, we are conducting the war in Afghanistan on the same guiding principle. The casualty numbers bear this out. Ten Americans have died in Afghanistan since we began the campaign a year ago.

Our leaders have lacked the stomach for war unless it was relatively easy. Sept. 11 restored our backbone, and then some. We can't get our hands on bin Laden. Hussein is a good enough substitute.

Nobody is going into this thinking we will get off easy. Florida's Sen. Bob Graham warns the war will mean a terrible reckoning for Americans, that it will bring even more terror at home, as well as military deaths in numbers we are not used to.

Tony Sledd, the corporal from Carrollwood, beloved son and treasured brother, is now a number on a page somewhere in the Pentagon, a solitary statistic. While his family grieves, the rest of us should take the photograph of this young man as a warning. If the president takes us to war, Tony Sledd's story will be repeated again and again and again and . . .

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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