I suspect that for many who oppose the war in Iraq, as I do, each week’s news of fresh American casualties prompts a troubling, unvoiced internal dialogue. They feel grief that these lives–many so young–have been violently cut off. But then a thought follows–one well-founded in observation of American politics–that more casualties spell less public support for the war, which therefore may end sooner. At this point a kind of moral seasickness sets in. Have they somehow permitted themselves to let these deaths secretly feed their political hopes–in a sense to rely on them–if only in the secrecy of their own thoughts?

The answer is a resounding no, but the reasons are somewhat complicated. To begin with, American casualties in Iraq don’t have the military significance they might have had if the war were a conventional one. They do not portend conventional military defeat–the American Army fleeing in disorder and panic while bands of insurgents chase after them. (There will be no rerun in reverse of the taking of Baghdad in the spring of 2003.) On the other hand neither are American troops likely to win in a conventional sense. As Tom Lasseter has reported for Knight Ridder news service, the Marines have arrived at a stalemate with Sunni guerrillas in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. He writes, “The sun raises temperatures to 115 degrees most days, insurgents stage ambushes daily then melt into the civilian population and American troops in Anbar find themselves in a house of mirrors in which they don’t speak the language and can’t tell friend from foe.” There’s no reason to think that this state of affairs will improve soon, or ever.

It may even be that taken as a whole the fighting between the US military and the insurgents is of secondary importance to the future of Iraq. Probably more important will be the shifting political loyalties of the great majority of Iraqis–Sunni, Shiite, Kurd or other–who are not engaged in any insurgency. Their will, or clash of wills, is likely to be decisive. For example, the rise to power of sectarian militias throughout the country, now de facto rulers of their localities, reported recently by Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, is surely more important to the eventual outcome than the number of Americans or Iraqis killed in Anbar.

Certainly, the country’s balkanization is more important than the constitutional negotiations, which have now run off the rails and in any case were always more effective as an exercise in managing perceptions in the United States than in building a political order in Iraq. After all, even according to the Bush Administration, “winning” in Iraq must be defined in political terms, as the creation of some kind of Iraqi state that meets American approval. “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” Bush has said. The question, though, is, Stand up for what? An Islamic democracy backed by Iran? A new dictatorship? Three new countries?

It is not in Iraq but in the United States that the American casualties have assumed decisive importance. The US involvement in Iraq–although probably not, unfortunately, the war among Iraqis–will end when the American public awakens to the futility of the whole grotesque venture and demands that the troops come home. And it is in this context that the American casualties assume decisive importance.

It is a disgraceful but undeniable fact that the far more numerous Iraqi casualties do not have much political importance in the United States. Consider how Iraqis, dying by the dozens day after day in terrorist attacks (and especially after the horrifying loss of more than 700 Shiites who stampeded in fear of a rumored suicide bomb), must feel when they hear Donald Rumsfeld say that American troops are “engaging the terrorists where they live, so we don’t have to engage them where Americans live.”

Herein lies the tragedy. The argument-by-casualties, in which X number of deaths costs Bush Y number of approval points in public opinion polls, takes place because the argument-by-words has been missing. A majority of the American public now looks on the war as a mistake, but most of the leaders of the so-called opposition party have failed to articulate an antiwar position. In the resulting silence, only the deaths are speaking. The loss of soldiers’ and civilians’ lives is the price of the politicians’ gutlessness.

This default, including the weakness of the antiwar movement once the war had been launched, is the true and proper source of moral disquiet felt by opponents of the war such as myself in the face of casualties. Yet it is not by antiwar activities but rather by inaction, or failure to act effectively, that those of us in the antiwar movement have entered into a seeming complicity with the killers. They have stepped into the vacuum left by us. The solution of course is not to draw back from opposition to the war but to step it up. Let words and peaceful actions speak instead of guns and corpses.

The argument-by-casualties is distilled in the long-range debate under way between Bush and Cindy Sheehan, the now world-famous mother who lost her son Casey in the war, and recently has been calling on Bush to meet with her and give an explanation for Casey’s death. Bush says of the Americans killed, “We will honor their sacrifice by completing the mission.” In other words, the casualties are to be redeemed by more casualties, leading to victory.

Sheehan throws these words back in the President’s face. She says, “You want to kill more kids just because you killed so many already.” What she has demanded by asking for a meeting with Bush is an explanation of the “mission” in which her son and others have died and still others are now dying. She asks for the honest debate that has so shamefully been lacking (more lacking, let it be said, on the Democratic side than on the Republican, and a visit by Sheehan to waffling Democrats would be highly appropriate). She says to her supporters, “I’m here because of Casey. We’re all here because of Casey.” She calls the dead to bring the living to life. She says, “I see him in all your eyes. And Casey will never die.”