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The five hundred

Dan Smith

“Go tell the Spartans, passer-by

That here obedient to their laws we lie.”

Just recently, Americans suffered their 500th death in Iraq. This quote is a slightly anglicized version of the inscription on the hot gates at Thermopylae pass in Greece, where another group of only 300 died attempting to save their civilization in 490 BC. There may not be many parallels between pre-Christian Greece and modernday Iraq, but there is a striking parallel between the men who fought in both places.

King Leonidas of Sparta led his 300-man personal guard to prevent the Persian invasion of Greece. He failed, in fact, but the 300 Spartans have lived on in legend.

Like it or not, American forces in Iraq are trying to save our civilization, as well. Not from an invading army – there was never any possibility of that – but trying to maintain our way of life in a world with an increasingly globalized economy.

Let’s hope they don’t fail us, or worse still, that we don’t fail them. The 500 were in Iraq because we – the American people, the Congress and the president – sent them there. We sent them there to maintain our way of life. That is a way of life built on the availability of energy, primarily from oil and natural gas.

Simply put, the American economy is based on oil. Unfortunately, it is based on oil that we don’t possess within our borders but must import. According to the latest U. S. Energy Information Agency figures, oil imports are over 53 percent of U. S. oil consumption. Much of those imports come from unstable areas of the world like the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

This is our Thermopylae. It isn’t a pass that can be held in a physical sense, but in an economic sense it is just as vital.

Ask your elf, while reading this newspaper, “How did I get here today?” The probable answer is by driving. Ask, “How do I heat my home or apartment?” The answer is probably with natural gas. Look at your clothes, shoes, TV set, microwave or virtually anything else you use every day. They probably have an oil or natural gas component.

Reliance on renewable energy like wind, water, solar and geothermal sources is simply not feasible in anything like the near future. Again according to EIA, the renewable energy share of total world energy consumption is expected to remain unchanged at 8 percent through 2025, despite a projected 56 percent increase in consumption of hydroelectricity and other renewable resources.

America’s choice is a simple one. We can either secure for ourselves the energy supplies necessary or make a radical alteration in our lifestyles. Personally, I like my life the way it is. How about you? If you are not interested in the radical changes that would be needed to reduce our energy consumption by about half, then you need to seriously consider the price that others pay to maintain your way of life.

The path we are on is one of projecting U.S. power into the areas that supply our energy. Many times that projection can be through diplomatic means. But regretfully, sometimes it must be done in another way.

War (or any armed conflict), said one German philosopher, is simply the projection of state policy by non-diplomatic means. Its purpose today in Iraq is not conquest, but the assurance that when we leave there will remain behind a stable government, more or less democratic, that will continue to supply the oil that we need while improving their country with the wealth we pay for that oil.

Those improvements lessen the likelihood that we’ll have to return another day.

Had we not taken the military action we have, a nation with the third-largest oil reserves in the world (after Saudi Arabia and Canada) would still be led by a stone crazy who had shot his way into power. A leader who had twice, once against Iran and once against Kuwait, tried to expand his control of oil supplies by military force. Almost any government we leave behind will be better than what was there when we arrived – better for us and coincidentally better for the Iraqi people.

It would be nice if relations between nations were always based on mutual understanding, enlightened self-interest and respect. Unfortunately, that is not the case today and not likely to ever be the case in the future. Something in human nature seems to prevent that from ever happening.

Nothing much has changed between 490 B.C. and 2004. People are still driven by the same goals, some good and some not so good. Whether or not that will ever change is well beyond my level or enlightenment, but try this on for size:

“Some day there won’t be fighting, they’ll put their guns away,

Men will love each other, and join their hands and pray,

Peace will come forever; men won’t get shot and die,

And on that day, pigs will spread their wings and learn to fly.”

Until we have flying pigs, remember the 500 who’ve gone and the 130,000 still at the sharp end of the knife. They were not and are not out there for oil – they are out there for you!

Dan Smith teaches political science at Colorado Mountain College.


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