May 31, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

Never Forget

Unlike last year, there was little controversy this Memorial Day about ABC News's decision to broadcast an honor roll of the American troops who died this past year serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there wasn't much context either. What we saw was “Nightline” host Ted Koppel explaining that there was nothing political about the show; his aim was simply “to honor those who have died” and “remind the rest of us how much we are in their debt.” He then read aloud the names of the more than 900 dead, as their photos flashed on the screen.

It is sobering in the extreme to hear the names, to see the photos and to wonder–as each image flickers past–whom they loved, what dreams they held dear, what jokes they told, and, above all, how they found the will and courage and conviction to risk the lives they lost. We all know why it led to hot debate when “Nightline” aired a similar honor roll last Memorial Day of the 721 troops who had died the previous year in Iraq (though not those who died in Afghanistan). To focus on the world destroyed, with every human life given up, is to raise big questions about why. Especially among many of the U.S. policy and media elite, the unspoken implication is that it was their own government that killed them, sending them off to deal with quarrels far removed from the comfortable living rooms where on Memorial Day we sit down in front of our television sets to watch the ceremonies.

“Nightline” noted that they had died “in the cause of freedom,” but left it to the audience to decide what exactly that might mean in the here and now. Appropriately, some commentators have told stories of the heroism involved. It is especially worth reading Jeff Jacoby's column in Sunday's Boston Globe, about 25-year-old Sgt. Rafael Peralta, whose dying act was to use his own bullet-riddled body as a shield to save his five comrades-in-arms from a grenade blast.

It seems fitting to add some further context. These troops did not die in the purely abstract cause of freedom. They were killed going up against enemies who also have names and faces. Here, I am not talking about the roll call of the individuals who fired the guns or threw the grenades at our troops, but about those who created the climates in which liberation is answered with terrorism and murder. In our civilized living rooms, we rarely speak of “enemies”–but that is the unspoken context here. Who killed these troops?

In Iraq, first and foremost, that would be Saddam Hussein, who for close to two generations took Iraq down the path of fascism, terror and war. His reign created the conditions in which liberation of the many would be answered by carnage spread by a deadly few; in which Iraqis going to vote would be targeted enroute to the polls, in which police recruits would be slaughtered; in which innocent civilians would be bombed while trying simply to get on with their lives.

Much energy has been spent on the debate over whether Saddam actually backed al Qaeda, or merely spent some of his billions purloined out of the United Nations Oil for Food relief program in supporting such folks as Palestinian suicide bombers and buying the kinds of conventional weapons used to kill the troops whose faces we just saw on “Nightline.” The larger point is that nations export to our globalizing world whatever it is they specialize in. Saddam specialized in terror. His legacy includes a roster of Iraqi dead so vast that it would take weeks if not months to read the full list of names, if anybody even knew the list. That is the kind of rule, or grotesque misrule, he brought to the international table–corrosive to all, and dangerous even to the great American superpower. Which is why, after 17 failed U.N. resolutions, our troops had to go to Iraq.

Second on the list of who killed our troops would be those who abetted Saddam's regime and continue to help his successors today. Topping that list would be the Baathist regime of Syria's dictator, Bashar Assad, and the totalitarian ayatollahs of Iran–backing what is too often called an “insurgency” and would better be termed a fight for the resumption of tyranny.

Also on the list would be the corrupt and craven crew at the U.N., who hid the rebuilding of Saddam's resources, who preferred to give Saddam an 18th chance. It is important to understand that while the U.N.-approved investigation into Oil for Food, led by Paul Volcker, has focused narrowly on questions of whether anyone administering the program violated U.N. procedure, the deeper horror was the assurance of the U.N. that all was well–while Saddam skimmed billions and used some of that to buy weapons and restock the war chest that certainly helped fund his military in 2003, and is very likely funding terror in Iraq today. Federal prosecutors have mentioned two unnamed high-ranking UN officials alleged to have taken bribes from Saddam; this is a matter not only of venal and corrupt behavior among those entrusted with serving the public good, but of U.N. officials with blood on their hands.

In Afghanistan, the killing tracks back to the days of the Soviet Union. It was the Soviet invasion that triggered the war that fed Osama bin Laden's grotesque ambitions, and led to the Taliban, which made the country al Qaeda's training ground and base of operations–and that necessitated the fight in which our troops are still dying.

What these killers have all had in common is that they were–or are–tyrants, ruling with terror. This is what our troops have been giving their lives to defy, and to end. President Bush put it neatly on Monday: “Because of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, two terror regimes are gone forever, freedom is on the march, and America is more secure.”

In thinking about the context for the past year's honor roll, however, I found there was another American president who also came to mind: Abraham Lincoln, who, as America struggled to shed its own evil of slavery, commemorated the dead at Gettysburg with a statement that holds true today. These Americans died “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.