I watched the Democratic Presidential debate last Thursday.

During the second half, members of the audience got to ask questions of the candidates on the stage. One lady stood up with her son, who had served in Iraq. She got a standing ovation from the audience. That’s not all. Every candidate, before replying to the lady’s question, took great pains to stress how grateful and overwhelmed he – and his fellow Americans – were to the lady’s son for his service, sacrifice, etcetera, etcetera. Joe Biden declared that, if elected, he would propose a ‘heroes’ bill to grant free health care to soldiers who had completed their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Predictably, his audience lapped it up. This got me wondering whether the Presidential candidates are trying to piggyback, and get maximum political mileage, from the obvious admiration most Americans feel for their countrymen in uniform. Take Joe Biden’s proposal. It seemed to infer that every one of those who had served one or more tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan qualifies as a ‘hero’. There is no doubting the courage and professionalism of these young men and women. But if you call them all heroes, aren’t you doing a disservice to the thousands of US soldiers in World War II, say, who performed genuine and outstanding acts of valor? As an outsider, I find it fascinating how most Americans put their servicemen on a pedestal. There is no doubt that the men in uniform are a brave and dedicated bunch, eager to serve their country. But let’s take a reality check here. The US has an all-volunteer army. These young men willingly signed on to join the military. As a soldier, fighting in battles is part of their job description. It is what they are trained for. If some of them manage to complete their stint without seeing any combat action that is a bonus – and not a birthright. I agree that the loss of a single serviceman is a great personal tragedy for the families involved. But put it in perspective. The US has suffered a little over 3500 fatalities in almost five years of war in Iraq. That is probably the lowest body count in the history of warfare. It is true that tens of thousands of Iraqis – most of them civilians – have lost their lives during the US misadventure in their country. This may prick the conscience of many Americans, but can any of them place their hands over their hearts and declare it really matters to them? This, despite the reality that most of these deaths are a direct consequence of American military presence in Iraq. Would the families of the slain Iraqis regard the US soldiers as heroes? Another thing apparent in these debates is that each candidate tries to score brownie points by sanctimoniously promising that, when he becomes President, he will bring the troops home pronto. This inevitably earns them tumultuous applause from the audience. They are pretty fuzzy on details, however. I have yet to hear a clearly explained plan about how the troop withdrawal can be painlessly achieved. If it was that plausible and achievable, it probably would have happened quite some time ago. George Bush may not possess the country’s greatest intellect, but even he is smart enough to comprehend that he has his feet firmly entrenched in political quicksand. This must have become even more apparent after the Republicans lost control of both the House and the Senate. If there was a quick and relatively painless exit strategy, he would have grabbed it long before now. Sure, even now, the US can simply cut its losses and leave. Many Americans do not regard Iraq as their war, after all. But that would not do any good to US international prestige – not to mention the fact that Al Qaeda would trumpet it as a monumental victory for them. Plus, it would not look good in the history books. The Democrats are very fond at hinting they have some sort of magic formula, but they haven’t cared to spell it out yet. And so the game continues.