Counting The Casualties

(AP / CBS)
The first press release came from the Department of Defense more than three years ago on March 22nd, 2003, announcing that Lt. Therrel Childers and Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez had been killed in action in Southern Iraq. As a researcher for the Evening News, living in wartime added a sad new duty to my routine...keeping track of how many American service members had died in Iraq.

Initially, CBS, like most other media outlets, was most interested in this data as we approached significant mileposts, whether it is 50 female service members killed in action, 100 troops from Ohio or a thousand since "Mission Accomplished". Unfortunately, the numbers tend to become the story, strangely isolated from the people they represent, and more than three years later, it's not even really clear what the numbers tell us.

Right now I'm working with a producer on a story about the children these service members leave behind. I've had to read through nearly a hundred obituaries to determine how many of the casualties over this past month were parents. Reading through the tear-soaked memories and personal histories of these individuals, I've had to pause on many occasions to maintain my own composure. Statistics are slippery, but statistics that have such raw emotion behind them are seductive in their power and people on both sides of the Iraq debate have held these numbers up to the light to try and find some truth from them.

Blogger John Callender has ruffled some feathers on his website Lies.com with an ongoing graphical comparison between the number of American casualties in Iraq and Vietnam. He does not adjust the figures to account for differing troop levels and refrains from assigning any meaning to the numbers, but his commenters are happy to jump into the fray on that point.

Since nearly the beginning of the current conflict, writers have been drawn to make comparisons with Vietnam. Former service members Phillip Carter and Owen West presented a statistic-intensive analysistwo years ago in the online magazine Slate arguing that Iraq was every bit as dangerous as Vietnam, saying, " After factoring in medical, doctrinal, and technological improvements, infantry duty in Iraq circa 2004 comes out just as intense as infantry duty in Vietnam circa 1966—and in some cases more lethal."

Amy Hess writes about conservative politics for the website About.com and makes a different kind of statistical comparison when she refers to the CDC's vital statistics report to see what the death rate is for young men right here in the United States. She's somewhat loose in her methodology in making the argument that the numbers aren't significantly different from the death rate in Iraq, but it's an interesting train of thought nonetheless. It's certainly a less inflammatory argument than that made by a blogger from Conservative-Majority who decries the media's recognition of October's death toll by highlighting statistics that show far more lives have been lost through abortions during the same time period.

One of the writers for the Power Line Blog, John Hinderaker, wrote an essay last summer about putting the casualty numbers into historical perspective and wonders if there had been real time media coverage in past wars if public support could have been sustained for difficult, but ultimately successful campaigns. "Take Iwo Jima..." he posits, "If Americans knew only that nearly 7,000 Marines lost their lives there, with no context, no strategy, and only sporadic acknowledgement of the heroism that accompanied those thousands of deaths, would the American people have continued the virtually unanimous support for our country, our soldiers and our government that characterized World War II?"

The world that we live in now however is difficult to compare to that of sixty or forty years ago. Media coverage is never going to return to once-a-week newsreels at the Saturday matinee and the American news consumer won't tolerate excessive sugar-coating on the news. Support for the war may be eroding, but I don't believe that the casualty figures are to blame as much a perception that progress has stalled. Combat losses are tragic and heartrending and each individual death is a uniquely unacceptable loss, but the post-9/11 citizen has seen loss and tragedy before and seems to accept that sacrifice is necessary as we strive for a more secure world. The outrage that was anticipated when women started coming home in body bags never materialized and finally seeing the photos of flag-draped coffins seemed to soothe public opinion more than inflame it. Our populace is not without fortitude, it just craves clarity and forthrightness.