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.