Editorial Roundup for Wednesday — December 14, 2005

• Iraq casualties: A non-trivial difference


Iraq casualties: A non-trivial difference

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 13, 2005:

As part of the Bush Administration’s new “blame the media for reporting only the bad news in Iraq” offensive, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is suggesting that reporters are too focused on the total number of U.S. killed and wounded in the war.

Asked last week by Jim Lehrer on the PBS NewsHour what part the deaths of 2,100 Americans played in the war’s increasing unpopularity, Mr. Rumsfeld replied, “I will give you an interesting statistic. The number of people who have been killed in action in Iraq is 1,664. It’s a lot. The number of people who have died over there are another 446. The number of people who have been wounded are 16,000. Of those, 8,500 went back in to their posts, back to duty within 48 or 72 hours. Now that’s just a little refinement on what you said. But it’s not nothing—it is a nontrivial difference between how you characterized it.”

The kindest interpretation of Mr. Rumsfeld’s comment is that the American public would be more likely to support the war if the media would report only combat deaths and only the number of U.S. personnel too badly wounded to return to action. He seems to be suggesting that by including non-combat deaths by accident, illness and suicide, the media are inflating the cost of the war.

The most common nonhostile causes of death, both in war and at peace, are aircraft and motor vehicle accidents. To his credit, Mr. Rumsfeld in 2003 initiated a program to cut down on preventable accidents, insisting on more safety features in military vehicles and more attention paid to common causes of aircraft crashes.

One problem: the actuarial group that is most likely to be involved in fatal accidents are young men between the ages of 16 and 24, which also happens to be the actuarial group that makes up the largest percentage of the military. Both in Iraq and back home, these guys tend to drive too fast and avoid wearing seat belts.

And yet, it is also a fact of modern warfare that “in-theater” deaths—that is, non-combat deaths in war zones—have tended to run steadily at 20 percent to 30 percent of the combat-related deaths. And it is a fact that the Pentagon continues to count these as casualties of war.

If you put on a uniform and go to war and come home in a box, you have died for your country. To draw fine points about that—even “non-trivial” fine points—dishonors that sacrifice.

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