Published 08 Jan 07
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Casualty figures a shameful means of manipulation
On New Year's Day, the headline of The New York Times read, "3,000 Deaths in Iraq, Countless Tears at Home."
A sobering statement to be sure – and many papers ran similar page-one leads – but in the days running up to that number, other headlines and stories seemed to enthusiastically set the reader up for the big, perhaps magic number – as if to suggest that 3,000 is somehow worse than 2,000, or 2,000 worse than 1,000.
Fact is – as so eloquently stated by Confederate cavalry commander, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest – "War means fightin,' and fightin' means killin.'" It's a harsh reality; perhaps even harsher and more real to the American people during the war in which Forrest himself served.
Approximately 360,000 U.S. soldiers died in America's four-year Civil War (That's more than 120-times the number of those killed in Iraq since the invasion of that country in the spring of 2003). Another 258,000 Americans died in that same war (being Confederate soldiers, they sometimes aren't counted among ‘American' dead in the Civil War, though they certainly were every bit as American as their U.S. counterparts). All total, some 618,000 American combatants perished in almost the same length of time that 3,000 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq (that's 206-times the U.S. deaths in Iraq).
Moreover, the American Civil War was an exceedingly unpopular war in its time. President Lincoln was roundly criticized for feeding Americans into a meatgrinder for a cause – and a series of sub-causes – that seemed far less important to Americans living in the 1860s than they do to us today.
Yet today, I believe it's fair to say that nearly all Americans – save a handful of unreconstructed Southerners (Yes, I'm Southern, proud of my heritage, but a bit more progressive) – cheer those brave immortals who marched to their deaths singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." But their sacrifices and that of their families would seem almost incomprehensible to many of us today, no matter the cause; unless you are a family member who has lost a son or daughter in the current global war on terror, including our broadest front – Iraq.
Let's consider other casualty figures in our more recent military history for perspective:
In World War II, during the first 76 hours of the 1943 landings on a tiny island chain known as Tarawa, some 1,000 U.S. Marines and sailors died, many before they could reach the shoreline.
The losses were staggering by anyone's estimation: And the parents of the boys – many of whom were shot to pieces wading ashore across razor sharp coral, disemboweled by Japanese bayonets, or burned alive in their tracked vehicles – were no tougher or more immune to the pain of loss than parents are today.
As I wrote in Decisive 20th Century American Battles (NY, Alpha Books / Penguin, 2003), "American newspapers published photographs of dead Marines on the beach and angry editorials calling for Congressional inquiries into the so-called ‘Tarawa fiasco' [even though we won the battle and ultimately, the war]. Military leaders like [Admiral] Nimitz and [General] Holland Smith were faulted for supposedly rushing into a meatgrinder that critics argued could have been bypassed. ‘You killed my son on Tarawa,' a mother wrote Nimitz."
Then of course there was the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944-January 1945, where some 19,000 American soldiers were killed (of about 81,000 U.S. casualties total) in about five weeks of fighting in Belgium. That battle was a complete failure of intelligence: our front lines were temporarily split. Green reinforcements were initially fleeing the field in a near panic, and the vaunted 101st Airborne Division was surrounded at Bastogne.
But despite the losses we won the battle, because we never wavered in our commitment to winning.
I often wonder how we in the 21st-century would manage the tragedy surrounding the sinking of one of our ships at sea when in some cases, during World War II, thousands of sailors and Marines perished within minutes. After all, would it not have been "criminal" – by today's standards according to some political commentators – to send our young men to sea in ships not adequately protected from submarine attacks or suicide pilots?
Also during World War II, some 26,000 American airmen were killed in action flying combat missions for the Eighth Air Force. In the summer of 1944 alone, approximately 10,000 airmen flying in B-17 bombers over Europe became KIAs. Was the sacrifice worth it? Could we not have defeated Germany without strategic bombing?
But there is no question that American and British strategic bombing brought Germany to her knees much faster than had there been no bombing.
Nevertheless, the current casualty numbers are being used and almost touted by those opposed to our efforts in Iraq as proof of what they call our "disaster." The higher the number, the more shrill their screaming, particularly when the number nears an even-number milestone by hundreds or at the thousand mark. Makes better copy for them.
Fact is, all losses are terrible. And the losses in Iraq between 2,500 and 3,000 are no worse for the grieving families than those who lost loved ones in the earliest days of the Iraq War.
Chris Berman, a former Navy SEAL and Blackwater security operator who is now president of North Carolina-based Granite Tactical Vehicles, has lost close friends in Iraq. But as he says, they knew what they were doing, no one forced their hand, and they believed in the cause of building a new, free Iraq. "I think the numbers should become a concern when you hear the troops themselves complaining about them," Berman says. "They are the ones putting their lives on the line and doing their best to survive each day over there. I think the more you mention the numbers, the more it starts to undermine the confidence of the troops fighting the war as well as the nation supporting them." He adds, "We never stop firemen from fighting a fire that is spreading to adjacent buildings just because it's dangerous and one of them may die. Our troops are fighting to keep evil from spreading. They fully understand the risks, and to suggest that lives lost were lost in vain – especially with troops still in the field – is defeatist and shameful."
Touting numbers as if keeping score or using them as a bottom line figure to promote an agenda, is indeed shameful. It's disrespectful to the dead – as if they are nothing more than numbers – and it's a disservice to their families. I've personally known Marines killed in peace and in war, and I can tell you none of them were or are numbers to those who will forever love them.
In recent months, I've interviewed families of soldiers killed in action for a forthcoming book, "Faces of Freedom - Profiles of America's Fallen Heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan" compiled by my friend and WEMT News (FOX News-affiliate) anchor Rebecca Pepin.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that those conversations may have been the toughest, most emotionally wrenching interviews I've ever conducted.
The parents were and are devastated over the loss of their child: Their lives have been completely upended and transformed into something they still have not quite figured out. But the ones I spoke with believe in what their sons were doing, because their sons believed they were making the world a better place. They were, they are, and they are members of the 3,000. And not one of those 3,000 should ever be discounted, nor should anyone consider retreat in the face of their deaths and in the good works they've accomplished. And make no mistake, despite our losses and despite a series of strategic problems, good things have been accomplished in Iraq.
And those good things will be the legacy of the brave 3,000.
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2007 W. Thomas Smith Jr.
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