Thoughts On Casualties In Wartime

At the beginning of the Iraq War, an accidental helipcopter crash killed several American soldiers. A general said about the accident: “What we do is dangerous. Even in peacetime.” Indeed, year in and year out, an average of one to two American soldiers die every day, during peacetime, as a result of accidents. This casualty rate has never attracted any public attention. Accidental deaths in peacetime never make headlines, notwithstanding their relative frequency.
There have been 53 combat deaths in Iraq in the 90-plus days since May 1–roughly one every other day, about half the Army’s accidental death rate during peacetime. Yet every one of these deaths has been front-page news. Why?
Not because of the strategic significance of this casualty rate, which is zero–just as the roughly equal rate of accidental deaths of troops in Iraq has no impact on the strategic situation there. And not because such an intense focus on near-zero casualty rates is a standard staple of war reporting. Past wars have, needless to say, generated vastly greater casualty rates. At the height of the Vietnam war, to which liberals longingly compare Iraq, an average of 40 American servicemen died each day–75 times the current rate in Iraq–and fatalities in World Wars I and II were far greater still. Yet in none of these conflicts was each casualty considered front-page news.
It is fair to say that no country has ever had to fight a war under this kind of scrutiny–where the death of every soldier is trumpeted in front-page headlines. It is doubtful whether a war can be fought under such circumstances. It has become a political commonplace to say that the continuing casualties in Iraq will, at some point, become a political problem for the Bush administration. I don’t doubt that this is true, given the tone of the news coverage, which suggests on a daily or near-daily basis that every fatality is proof of the failure of our effort in Iraq.
If we ask why the minuscule combat casualty rate in Iraq receives such intense publicity, while the nearly-equal accidental death rate there is almost ignored, and accidental deaths of soldiers in other parts of the world are never reported, there can be only one answer: the focus by the American press on every combat fatality represents a conscious effort to undermine the war effort and the Bush administration. Why else this sudden concern for the well-being of the American G.I.? Why else the ritual incantation:

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