Politics & Policy

Sorry, Wrong Number

2,000 is misleading.

This week the media and the antiwar crowd celebrated the 2000th death in Iraq. Not commemorated, celebrated. This was not a moment of solemnity for them, but an emotional release after weeks of anticipation. Staff Sgt. George Alexander Jr., 34, of Killeen, Texas, put them over the top.

And the irony is, they have it wrong. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings–or in this case good tidings–but there are in fact about seven to go.

It all depends on whose numbers you want to believe. The press goes by data such as that at icasualties.org which reported 2000 deaths related to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) when official DOD figures http://web1.whs.osd.mil/mmid/casualty/castop.htm showed 1993. The discrepancy is not statistically significant–but it throws a little cold water on the celebration. So is DOD hiding something? Or is the press over-reporting the dead?

The figures reported by the press are derived from compilations of official death announcements. But the process of classifying what deaths count as OIF-related can be subjective. Naturally, all deaths in theater count, even those not involving hostile action, which are about a quarter of the total. Therefore, the 26 drownings, nine electrocutions, and three overdoses that took place in Iraq are all included in OIF stats. Army Special Forces Specialist Scott J. Mullen was serving in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) when he died from injuries sustained when he fell 30 feet from an escalator in a Philippine shopping mall. He counts in the OEF totals. Similar accidents take place out of theater of course, life has its risks; but they do not “count.”

If people are wounded or have medical emergencies in theater, are transported out and subsequently die, they too are included. Some have claimed, groundlessly, that casualties are flown out of theater before they die to deflate the number of in-theater deaths. In fact, according to policy, the case of anyone who was in a theater of operations within several months of their death will be investigated to see if their demise was somehow related to their service. Staff Sgt. Alexander is a case in point–he was wounded in Iraq but died at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. My former student and friend Lt. Col. Paul Kimbrough was being airlifted from Afghanistan to Incirlik Turkey when he passed away of heart failure. He is listed as an OEF casualty.

Master Sergeant Michael D. Jones died in Syracuse, N.Y. of illness March 3, 2005 after returning from Iraq. He was originally reported as an OIF casualty, but a subsequent investigation determined that his illness had nothing to do with his service overseas, so he was reclassified. Here is an example of where the press has over-counted a casualty–Jones is still listed unofficially as an OIF death even though Iraq had nothing to do with it. There have been a number of other such reclassifications, and this has produced the variation between the official and unofficial figures, because the unofficial body counters either do not or will not revise their figures downward. DOD on the other hand will revise figures upward–take for example Master Sergeant James Coons who committed suicide stateside after being evacuated from Kuwait for attempting suicide there. Coons was originally not counted as an OIF casualty because he took his own life, but was reclassified when a review board ruled that the suicide was caused by the stress of wartime service.

The problem is that the press and anti-war activists have placed an inordinate amount of emphasis on the symbolism of a figure that is at best speculative, at worst simply wrong. There is enough ambiguity to make the whole exercise statistically questionable, not to mention distasteful. For some it has become a ghoulish fetish–witness the proliferation of websites with body counters.

It is not a question of ignoring the price we pay for freedom, in blood or in treasure. Those of us with friends and family in the military, and especially in theater, are acutely aware of that. But because the benefits are harder to quantify, reporting on the costs becomes the easier alternative. And with a nice round number the story writes itself.

To put the losses in context one can always point out that this is the lowest casualty rate of any war in our history, that we have the greatest survival rate of wounded, we are fielding the best equipped force we have ever fielded; our troops are better fed, better paid, their families better cared for than ever before. One must also note that no wartime casualty is more or less significant than any other. But none of this can overcome the distasteful press fascination with pegging stories to the body count. Moreover, at any such future “milestone” we will see that type of reporting again.

Wouldn’t they be bummed if we gave a war and nobody died? What ever would they write about?

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.

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