Some Thoughts on Casualties in Times of War and Peace

It is universally acknowledged that public support for the Iraq war is eroding. Some of the polls supporting this claim are faulty because they are based on obviously misleading internal data, but the basic point cannot be denied: many Americans, possibly even a majority, have turned against the war.
This should hardly be a surprise. On the contrary, how could it be otherwise? News reporting on the war consists almost entirely of itemizing casualties. Headlines say: “Two Marines killed by roadside bomb.” Rarely do the accompanying stories–let alone the headlines that are all that most people read–explain where the Marines were going, or why; what strategic objective they and their comrades were pursuing, and how successful they were in achieving it; or how many terrorists were also killed. For Americans who do not seek out alternative news sources like this one, the war in Iraq is little but a succession of American casualties. The wonder is that so many Americans do, nevertheless, support it.
The sins of the news media in reporting on Iraq are mainly sins of omission. Not only do news outlets generally fail to report the progress that is being made, and often fail to put military operations into any kind of tactical or strategic perspective, they assiduously avoid talking about the overarching strategic reason for our involvement there: the Bush administration’s conviction that the only way to solve the problem of Islamic terrorism, long term, is to help liberate the Arab countries so that their peoples’ energies will be channelled into the peaceful pursuits of free enterprise and democracy, rather than into bizarre ideologies and terrorism. Partly this omission is due to laziness or incomprehension, but I think it is mostly attributable to the fact that if the media acknowledged that reforming the Arab world, in order to drain the terrorist swamp, has always been the principal purpose of the Iraq war, it would take the sting out of their “No large stockpiles of WMDs!” theme.
One wonders how past wars could have been fought if news reporting had consisted almost entirely of a recitation of casualties. The D-Day invasion was one of the greatest organizational feats ever achieved by human beings, and one of the most successful. But what if the only news Americans had gotten about the invasion was that 2,500 allied soldiers died that day, with no discussion of whether the invasion was a success or a failure, and no acknowledgement of the huge strategic stakes that were involved? Or what if such news coverage had continued, day by day, through the entire Battle of Normandy, with Americans having no idea whether the battle was being won or lost, but knowing only that 54,000 Allied troops had been killed by the Germans?
How about the Battle of Midway, one of the most one-sided and strategically significant battles of world history? What if there had been no “triumphalism”–that dreaded word–in the American media’s reporting on the battle, and Americans had learned only that 307 Americans died–never mind that the Japanese lost more than ten times that many–without being told the decisive significance of the engagement?
Or take Iwo Jima, the iconic Marine Corps battle. 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?
We are conducting an experiment never before seen, as far as I know, in the history of the human race. We are trying to fight a war under the auspices of an establishment that is determined–to put the most charitable face on it–to emphasize American casualties over all other information about the war.
Sometimes it becomes necessary to state the obvious: being a soldier is a dangerous thing. This is why we honor our service members’ courage. For a soldier, sailor or Marine, “courage” isn’t an easily-abused abstraction–“it took a lot of courage to vote against the farm bill”–it’s a requirement of the job.
Even in peacetime. The media’s breathless tabulation of casualties in Iraq–now, over 1,800 deaths–is generally devoid of context. Here’s some context: between 1983 and 1996, 18,006 American military personnel died accidentally in the service of their country. That death rate of 1,286 per year exceeds the rate of combat deaths in Iraq by a ratio of nearly two to one.
That’s right: all through the years when hardly anyone was paying attention, soldiers, sailors and Marines were dying in accidents, training and otherwise, at nearly twice the rate of combat deaths in Iraq from the start of the war in 2003 to the present. Somehow, though, when there was no political hay to be made, I don’t recall any great outcry, or gleeful reporting, or erecting of crosses in the President’s home town. In fact, I’ll offer a free six-pack to the first person who can find evidence that any liberal expressed concern–any concern–about the 18,006 American service members who died accidentally in service of their country from 1983 to 1996.
The point? Being a soldier is not safe, and never will be. Driving in my car this afternoon, I heard a mainstream media reporter say that around 2,000 service men and women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq “on President Bush’s watch.” As though the job of the Commander in Chief were to make the jobs of our soldiers safe. They’re not safe, and they never will be safe, in peacetime, let alone wartime.
What is the President’s responsibility? To expend our most precious resources only when necessary, in service of the national interest. We would all prefer that our soldiers never be required to fight. Everyone–most of all, every politician–much prefers peace to war. But when our enemies fly airplanes into our skyscrapers; attack the nerve center of our armed forces; bomb our embassies; scheme to blow up our commercial airliners; try to assassinate our former President; do their best to shoot down our military aircraft; murder our citizens; assassinate our diplomats overseas; and attack our naval vessels–well, then, the time has come to fight. And when the time comes to fight, our military personnel are ready. They don’t ask to be preserved from all danger. They know their job is dangerous; they knew that when they signed up. They are prepared to face the risk, on our behalf. All they ask is to be allowed to win.
It is, I think, a reasonable request. It’s the least that we–all Americans, including reporters and editors–can do.

Responses

Books to read from Power Line