Politics & Policy

The Role of Casualties

War, by the numbers.

On Monday, seven U.S. soldiers were killed. On Wednesday, 18. On Thursday, an army general acting as spokesman for our high command in Iraq announced that the volume of suicide bombers was actually decreasing. He did not dwell on the coincidence — that suicide bombers were decreasing as American deaths increased. Is General Alston looking forward to the day when he can report that there were no suicide bombers that week? Only Americans, killed by insurgents who did not have to trouble to kill themselves? And of course on Thursday we heard from the commander in chief, that nothing would diminish the spirit of the American liberators, nor deflect their aim.

We do not have accurate figures for the number of Iraqi civilians who have died in the course of the war. Estimates range from 25,000 to 100,000 or more — this in a population of a mere 26 million.

Self-imposed deaths by insurgents are morally finite, like grief over suicides. However, there are many deaths by non-involved Iraqis in the regular collisions between insurgents and Americans. One day last month was typical: l Iraqi insurgent, 3 American soldiers, 40 Iraqis-on-the-scene. Here it is notable that resentment from families deprived has not added to anything like the equivalent of a native counter-insurgency movement. The successes of Iraqi insurgents haven’t generated pressure visible from our side.

Perhaps there are Iraqis who, weighing progressive civilian losses, reduce, or attenuate, their covert aid to the insurgents. More likely, they simply sit on the stormy scene, corpses of friends and neighbors littering the land, and practice resignation, rather than resentment.

It is a common phenomenon. The relatives of the people who died in Dresden and Berlin and Tokyo did not form anti-Hitler or anti-Tojo national movements. They shrugged: that’s just the way war works.

But resignation of this character is not at all American. The death of 18 American soldiers will certainly prompt a dozen speeches from congressmen and a hundred editorials. And, of course, the commentary of the president, in which he reaffirmed his determination to stand by the Iraqi venture.

Gross mortality figures necessarily weigh in as a factor affecting the morale of the enterprise. If our casualties in Vietnam had been not 58,000, but 580, we would probably still be there. Here it is vital to remind ourselves of the mindset of many non-American figures, military and political.

Killing of the kind engaged in by terrorists is a supremely individualistic activity. The men who managed the death of 56 Londoners on July 7 were what the sociologist David Riesman called “inner directed.” They had motives, yes, but these were mostly undifferentiated. A hatred of — neighbors who rode the subways and the buses going to work? Any effort to start up an organization to better the conditions of such as this group would be stillborn. There was no ethnic, or racial, or religious, or economic discrimination in their choice of victims. As for the terrorists themselves, 75 percent are from the middle class, half of them college trained.

The terrorist “movement” is impossible to quantify. Individual terrorists were, only yesterday, engaged in ordinary occupations, shocking friends and family when they struck as terrorists.

Curiosity turns to the question: How much damage must insurgents and terrorists do in order to persuade themselves that their calling is worthwhile? Christian martyrs could dream, in their terminal moments in bloody arenas, of a reordered, Christianized world. The insurgents in Iraq can dream of driving Americans away from their native soil. But of what stuff were the dreams of the London bombers?

The faculty of corporate sorrow is missing. Mao Tse-tung repeatedly expressed his indifference to casualty figures incurred in his myriad enterprises, fighting Nationalists, Japanese, and Koreans. He was explicitly unconcerned about the number of people who died of starvation in his Cultural Revolution or his Great Leap Forward. Individuals did not count. The most consummate egalitarian in history even toyed with getting rid of people’s names and replacing them with numbers. Mao would have sent John Donne off to a clinic upon hearing him say, Every man’s death diminisheth me.

American deaths in military campaigns deeply affect fellow Americans. And they add up to political pressures. These are still inchoate, but they are the agents of the insurgents’ immediate purpose of driving Americans away. After that, they will be reduced to killing fellow Iraqis.


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