Focusing on the Wrong Number

The figure of 2,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq is arbitrary and clouds our understanding of the war?s full impact.

Article created by The Century Foundation

America's enterprise in Iraq crossed a somber landmark when the 2,000th American soldier died this week. Most of the major papers focused on this story, and the New York Times printed photographs of 1,000 soldiers who have given their lives. But the figure of 2,000 is an arbitrary one, and clouds our understanding of the war’s impact. There are other numbers that give a fuller accounting of the costs of this war.

  • Fifteen thousand, for example: the number of America's wounded. While body armor and improved medical technology has raised the survival rate from 75 percent in Vietnam to 87 percent today, almost half of these injuries (7,159 of 15,220) are serious. Ten percent of the wounded will go home with spinal injuries. Another ten percent have experienced head injuries, and many will suffer brain damage. Amputation rates, at 6 percent, are double the historic norm. "You live," says Lt. Col. Craig Silverton, an orthopedic surgeon, "but you have these devastating injuries." "Somebody's got to pay the price," says Col. Joseph Brennan, a head and neck surgeon, "And these kids are paying the price."

    In March, a photo essay by Johnny Dwyer published in the New York Times Magazine described what the word "casualty" encompasses: "deep flesh wounds, burst eardrums, shattered teeth, perforated organs, flash burns to the eyes, severed limbs." The images are even more powerful; they strip away the anesthetized images we have of 'survivors.' These soldiers may survive, but their dreams—of playing sports again, going to college, walking on the beach—will not. Other soldiers, not tallied in these casualty figures, will suffer from psychological trauma for the rest of their days.

  • Three hundred and fifteen billion dollars is the price of health-care for the wounded, according to Linda Bilmes, a public finance professor at Harvard University. Blimes extrapolated from data on disability claims from the Gulf War to calculate this figure; if it is even close to the mark it will burden the Veteran Affairs department for decades.

  • Four thousand is the estimated number of families that have had a spouse or parent killed or seriously wounded. Many of these families are working class and have lost a primary breadwinner. Soldiers in National Guard and reserve units, who did not anticipate a lengthy and dangerous deployment when they signed up, now account for one-third of all dead and wounded.

  • Thirty thousand is the frequently-cited number of Iraqis who have died directly from the war. But when you factor in indirect results of the war—increased infant mortality, damage to infrastructure, the rise in criminality, and other changes from pre-war Iraq—the number skyrockets. A team led by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, published a study one year ago in The Lancet that showed that the United States-led invasion had resulted in 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths during the first 18 months. When you factor in injuries (in the hundreds of thousands) and economic disruption it becomes clear that the Iraqis are bearing staggering costs.

There is evidence that Americans are coming to terms with the war's consequences. An October NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll shows a majority of Americans believe that the war was not worth it (by a 51 to 40 margin.) A Pew Center poll found that when asked "Do you think the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or do you think the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible?" a plurality for the first time favored withdrawal. Though the 48 to 47 percent margin is statistically insignificant, it marks a major shift from October of last year, when Americans supported keeping troops in Iraq by a 57–36 margin. A Harris Poll published in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday suggests that only 19 percent believe the situation for U.S. troops is improving while 44 percent think it's getting worse.

In 1971, John Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" With all the attention focused on a single number this week, it's worth remembering that a man can give his life without appearing in the fatality figures.