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DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Rumsfeld's 'fungible' facts

DEFENSE Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was offensive enough when he intimated last week that US troops were as interchangeable as automotive factory parts. Irritated at a question from a reporter about why 20,000 American troops had to stay 90 days longer than expected in Iraq, he said: "Oh, come on. People are fungible. You can have them here or there."

The Bush administration has used the term "fungible" before. It withheld $34 million from the UN Population Fund. "Money is fungible," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher as the administration hid behind reports of coerced Chinese abortions to deny funds to the rest of the world. Rumsfeld has said that any accusations that the United States invaded Iraq to control its oil supply are "utter nonsense. Oil is fungible. People that have it will want to sell it, and it doesn't matter who they sell it to."

Now soldiers are the latest commodity in a war where it did not matter who the United States sold it to. Rumsfeld says America needs to keep troop numbers up to quell the chaos in Iraq. The last three weeks have been the deadliest for the Americans in the 13-month invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since March 31, about 100 US soldiers have died -- as of yesterday, one-seventh of the war's 706 fatalities. "In the end, it will be successful," Rumsfeld said.

US soldiers are already successful at killing Iraqis. In the invasion itself, from mid-March to May 1, 2003, US and British forces killed Iraqis at a rate of 60-1, according to the Cambridge-based Project for Defense Alternatives. Rumsfeld boasted that Iraqi military personnel would become our loyal friends once "they are persuaded that the regime is history."

Over the winter Saddam Hussein was captured. But chaos continues. In the latest insurgency, we have killed at least 1,000 Iraqis. Despite the American fatalities, we are still killing Iraqis at a 10-to-1 ratio. Yesterday, the commander of US forces in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, boasted that the insurgents have "seen the might of the American military unleashed."

Yet Rumsfeld needs more soldiers to unleash more might. We have been here before. In 1966 in Vietnam, we killed North Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong at a 14-1 clip. The US military was convinced it would win a war of attrition. We escalated the war. But in 1967, 1968, and 1969 -- the years where Americans suffered the most battle deaths -- the kill ratio remained one US soldier to 14 fighters for North Vietnam.

In 1968, Army General William Westmoreland said: "The enemy can be attrited, the price can be raised, and it is being raised to the point that it could be intolerable to the enemy." American soldiers were "fungible." To Westmoreland's surprise, the other side decided they were equally so.   Continued...

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