Dustin Donica's parents did not realise that their son was the 3,000th American soldier to die in Iraq. Neither the officers who had called at their Texas home last Sunday to break the news, nor the reporters who began arriving about an hour later, mentioned the fact. It was only when Dustin's father, David, logged on to the internet that he found out.
"We had no idea why we were getting, within an hour almost, eight or nine people at the door," Mr Donica said later in an email to news agencies. "That was a surprise to us, because none of them mentioned why they were there. Perhaps they were embarrassed. One guy was standing there shaking like a leaf."
The family refused to speak to the reporters, but after discovering why there was such interest in their loss, Mr Donica emailed a simple statement: "Dustin had a tremendous sense of duty, both to his family and his country. He will be missed by his family and all those that knew him."
For the loved ones of the 22-year-old from Spring, near Houston, Texas, it was an individual tragedy. For the rest of America, it was a grim statistic. Specialist Donica, killed by small-arms fire three days after Christmas, during counter-insurgency operations in Baghdad, was just one of 115 who died during the bloodiest month for US troops in Iraq in more than two years. And the carnage has continued into this year, with the death total now at 3,006. Even at the most conservative estimate, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the invasion in 2003, along with 250 other coalition troops, 127 of them British.
All the indications are that, if President George Bush gets his way and as many as 20,000 more US troops are dispatched to Iraq, the rate of losses would accelerate further. The extra forces would be deployed to Baghdad and Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency is at its fiercest.Scepticism about this strategy is widespread, not only among US military commanders in Iraq but, according to some reports, even in the White House.
Mr Bush is pressing ahead regardless. Last week he reshuffled his senior military chiefs, with General George Casey, the most senior officer in Iraq and a noted doubter of the efficacy of any "surge" in troops, leaving his post several months early. He will be replaced by Lieutenant-General David Petraeus, a well-respected officer whose PhD thesis at Princeton was on the lessons of Vietnam. He led the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion, and was credited with devising an effective counter-insurgency strategy in northern Iraq in the year after the regime's fall.
The retirement of the head of US Central Command, General John Abizaid, has been co-ordinated with the other changes, so that General Petraeus will have a new superior, Admiral William Fallon. The appointment of a navy chief to a post that carries responsibility for ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has raised some eyebrows. But critics believe the problem is with the strategy rather than the people chosen to implement it.
"This is too little, too late," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary, University London, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "Studies have estimated that it would take a force of up to half a million to control Iraq, and adding 20,000 troops to the 132,000 already there is nowhere near enough."
A leaked memo from Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, recently admitted that "we could not clear and hold" in previous counter-insurgency operations. In these, US-led forces would swoop on Baghdad neighbourhoods in succession, with the aim of expelling the militias and allowing the Iraqi authorities to gain control. But with much of the Iraqi security forces, particularly the police, in league with the militias, these areas reverted to militia control as soon as US troops left.
"General Casey was replaced in part because he wanted to concentrate on the training of Iraqi security forces," said Dr Dodge. "The White House wants to focus on gaining control over sectarian violence... But it is a false choice: if you don't have enough Iraqis you can trust to take over, the strategy collapses."
Washington has made little secret of its desire to confront one militia in particular: the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters jeered Saddam Hussein on the scaffold. As that incident shows, they have considerable influence in the governing coalition of Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, whose position would be made even more precarious if the turbulent Shia cleric turned against him. The pressures on him are thought to have led to Mr Maliki's recent comments that he had never wanted the job, and would like to leave office soon.
All the same, operations against the militia were expected to start this weekend. "The Americans want a war with the Mahdi army. It seems they will succeed in getting one," a Western diplomat in Baghdad said. "They want to get rid of the militia." A Pentagon report last month described the Mahdi army as the biggest threat to Iraq's security.
Baghdad already knows what an all-out battle with the militia would be like: the Mahdi army has twice launched armed uprisings against coalition forces. During the last clashes, in which US helicopter gunships were used over Sadr City, the teeming Shia slum that is the militia's stronghold, the cost both to US troops and to Iraqi civilians was heavy. "I don't think they can dig the Mahdi army out of Sadr City, not without levelling it, like Fallujah," Dr Dodge said.
The nuances of military and political strategy in Iraq appear to be of ever less concern to the American heartland, where most want to hear of a reduction in US troops, rather than reinforcement. The news that the toll had reached 3,000 eclipsed the international revulsion over the manner of Saddam's execution for a time.
But in Spring, Texas, where a red, white and blue ornamental banner with a yellow ribbon flew on the Donicas' front lawn, the thoughts were all of "Double D", as Dustin was known to his friends. Born and raised in Houston, he joined up in 2003 after a spell at the University of Texas in Austin. He qualified as a paratrooper before being posted to Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Shortly before his deployment, he was posted to Alaska, noting wryly on his MySpace website: "The army finds it prudent to condition me to the cold in preparation for my Iraq tour."
After the news of his death broke, the MySpace site began to fill up with notes of condolence. "Always in my prayers brother, see you at the gates," read a message from Chris Donaton, who said he served with Dustin in Alaska.Reuse content