Who's Counting?
The media's "grim milestones" in Iraq further a political agenda.

The American Spectator, March 2007

Although you might have missed it amid the holidays and the news of Gerald Ford's death, the last week of 2006 brought not one but two "grim milestones" in the Iraq war. The first was reported by Christopher Torchia of the Associated Press on December 26:

The deaths of six more American soldiers pushed the U.S. military death toll since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to at least 2,977--four more than the number killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

The milestone came with a military announcement that three soldiers had been killed Monday [Christmas Day]. Three more service members were killed today in roadside bombings near Baghdad, the military said.

And this is a milestone . . . well, why exactly? The two numbers are incomparable in many ways. Whereas the 9/11 death toll includes citizens of nearly 100 countries, Torchia's Iraq count leaves out soldiers from non-U.S. coalition partners and allied Iraqi forces. Everyone who died "on 9/11" did so as a result of enemy action; by contrast, some 20 percent of U.S. military deaths in Iraq have been from non-hostile causes, including accidents, illness, and suicide.

Most important, the vast majority of 9/11 casualties were civilians, and even the servicemen who died while on duty at the Pentagon did not know they were in harm's way. A soldier's death is no less a cause for grief than a civilian's. Yet those who died on 9/11 were, with some exceptions, not heroes but victims. In a haunting 2002 blog post, James Lileks described one of them, Christine Hanson, a passenger on flight 175, which hit the second World Trade Center tower:

She was two. The family was flying to Disneyland when the terrorists slaughtered the flight attendants, stabbed the pilots to death, and drove the plane into the building. . . .

Little Christine was [my daughter's] age, give or take a month; bin Laden's lackeys killed her--and did so to ensure that other fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters died as well, preferably by the tens of thousands. This little girl's death wasn't even a comma in the manifesto they hoped to write. They made sure that her last moments alive were filled with horror and blood, screams and fear; they made sure that the last thing she saw was the desperate faces of her parents, insisting that everything was okay, we're going to see Mickey, holding out a favorite toy with numb hands, making up a happy lie. And then she was fire and then she was ash.

It has become a trope of the anti-war left to infantilize American servicemen, portraying them as victims. This allows the anti-warrior to have it both ways: to "support" the troops while opposing their mission. But to describe soldiers as victims, and as "kids," is to dishonor them. They are adults who have made an adult commitment to undertake dangerous work in the service of their country. Actual kids were murdered on 9/11; heroic adults are risking their lives voluntarily to prevent it from happening again. If more civilians than soldiers die, this would hardly indicate success.

Of course, some people believe that the liberation of Iraq made another 9/11 more, not less, likely. That is a legitimate point of view, but it makes the AP's exercise in comparative body counting seem all the more odd. After all, for years we've heard the mantra: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11! If that's true, why is the 9/11 death toll a suitable "milestone" for Iraq? One might as well compare Iraq deaths with the number of stateside fatalities from drowning (3,180 in 2004 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control).

To his credit, Torchia does address this question. His AP dispatch continues:

President Bush has said that the Iraq war is part of the United States' post-Sept. 11 approach to threats abroad. Going on the offense against enemies before they could harm Americans meant removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, pursuing members of al-Qaida and seeking regime change in Iraq, Bush has said.
But wait. If Iraq and Afghanistan were both part of the U.S. response to 9/11, then why did the AP exclude deaths in Afghanistan from the military side of its body-count comparison? ( noted in September that the sum of America's Iraq and Afghanistan deaths had surpassed the "sober benchmark" of 2,973.) The more closely you look at it, the more arbitrary this "milestone" seems.

The number 3,000 is arbitrary too, but at least not tendentiously so. When the Pentagon announced on New Year's Eve that the death toll had reached that mark, reporters were ready. Indeed, Reuters issued a dispatch December 28 anticipating the 3,000th death:

In Kansas City, they will light candles and lay out more than 80 pairs of empty combat boots. In Chicago, anti-war activists will hand out black ribbons, each bearing the name of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

And in New Haven, Connecticut, opponents of the war plan to read aloud the names of 3,000 dead U.S. soldiers.

In all, organizers say some 140 demonstrations in 37 states are planned to mark the 3,000th U.S. military death in Iraq, a milestone that is likely only days away. . . .

Among those keeping track of the U.S. death toll, including soldiers' families, peace activists, politicians, veterans and others, many say they will commemorate the 3,000 mark as both a way to honor the dead and demand an end to the war.

This tells you all you need to know about the journalistic preoccupation with war-death "milestones." The 3,000th death had no inherent news value; the situation in Iraq was not appreciably different from when 2,999 American servicemen had died. Nor was the life of Specialist Luis Ayala, the 3,001st American serviceman to die in Iraq, any less precious than that of Specialist Dustin Donica, the 3,000th.

Those who support the mission of the troops may grieve every death, but the number 2,973 or 3,000 has no meaning for them. As that Reuters dispatch makes clear, these "grim milestones" are a propaganda symbol for war opponents. News organizations that give them such prominence are effectively taking the antiwar side of the debate over Iraq--the side that uses the deaths of soldiers to further the argument that they died for nothing.

Yet journalists tend to be rather more respectful of their own colleagues who've fallen in action. Eric Deggans, TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times, in Florida, recently denounced "claims that journalists suppress good news from Iraq":

Statistics proving the Iraq War is the most deadly conflict in history for journalists didn't stop these boneheaded accusations from conservative pundits and war hawks. . . . But with 126 journalists and support staff dead so far, perhaps the Ann Coulters of the world could ease up on reporters who are risking their lives.
No one suggests that journalists should cut and run from Iraq because it is a dangerous place for them. Most reporters would say getting a story is a noble enough cause to risk one's life for. Why won't they say the same about liberating a country?

Next article: 'Let's Just Say' (The American Spectator, 4/07)

Previous article: Reckless Caution (2/8/07)

Go to main list