American military deaths in Iraq: Context and History

Original Article

Predictably, the mainstream media is talking up the “milestone” of the 2,000th American military death in Iraq to portray the struggle as a useless, costly quagmire. According to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, the total number of American military deaths in Iraq, including non-battle deaths, now stands at 2002 in approximately 32 months of combat from March 2003 to October 2005.

It is often said that these deaths are not simply statistics. They are real faces and lives, each with its own story and family. Yet we do rely on statistics sometimes, because they offer a sense of scale. For example, according to the National Health Center for Statistics, in the year 2003:

A total of over 2.4 million Americans died. Over 684,000 died from heart disease. Over 104,000 were killed in accidents (over 44,000 in car accidents and nearly 17,000 fell to death). Over 30,000 committed suicide.
Over 17,000 were killed in homicides.

In comparison, the annual average death rate for American military personnel in Iraq is about 751.

Of course, there is a clear moral difference between “ordinary” deaths at home and military deaths in war. So let’s draw a comparison to the statistics on American military fatalities in other modern wars. According to the United States Civil War Center, the fatalities rates, including those killed-in-action and non-battle deaths, were:

For World War I, over 6,100 per month. For World War II, over 9,200 per month. In Korea, over 900 killed-in-action each month (non-battle death information is not available). For Vietnam, over 600 per month. For Gulf War I, almost 300 in one month.

The first Gulf War was noted for its remarkably low casualty rate. Some even observed that the death rate for the deployed American military personnel was lower than that during peacetime, making it “safer to be at war than at home.”

In comparison, an average of 63 died each month in the current war.

Even in the deadliest month of the conflict (November 2004), the American military death toll was 137, making it substantially smaller than the anomalously low Gulf War I rate. When the overall population growth is factored in — for example, during World War I, the total US population was only a little over 100 million while today it exceeds over 260 million — the death rate for the current war shrinks still in comparison to the others.

In fact, during World War II, more American soldiers died in one week on average than in all of 32 months of operations in Iraq. Despite the tragically higher fatalities rate of World War II, the media of its day kept respectful distance, and allowed the families of the fallen to grieve privately in dignity.

There was no complaint that American soldiers were dying “needlessly in a war of aggression” against a Nazi Germany that did not bomb Pearl Harbor. There was no talk of a “quagmire” as thousands of American died on the beaches of Normandy in one day and as thousands more died in the jungles of the Pacific, facing suicide attacks from a fanatical foe. No one was accused of hyped intelligence when the actual German atomic weapons program turned out to be substantially less advanced than estimated.

Instead, the families of the Greatest Generation, already having survived a crippling Depression, quietly endured the deaths and supported the military endeavors to defend American interests and to extend the boundaries of freedom.

Today’s mainstream media, on the other hand, sensationalize — almost herald — the war deaths in a highly partisan political effort to paint the Iraq war as a failure, emphasizing its flaws with minimal — if any — references to its successes or even its context, such as toppling a murderous dictatorship, defeating a sponsor of terrorism and bringing self-determination to a region crippled with corrupt monarchies and repressive socialism.

Clearly, the comparisons to the past military deaths do not imply that the American casualty in the current war is insubstantial or less tragic. On the contrary, every one of the military sacrifices in Iraq was a noble, meaningful one, suffered by an all-volunteer force that needed no draft, no compulsion to fight for our nation.

Ernest Hemingway is said to have observed at the beginning of World War II: “I have seen much war in my life and I detest it profoundly. But there are worse things than war, and they all come with defeat.”

Indeed, what is more important to recognize, and what these historical figures demonstrate, is that it is fully within our national historical legacy to carry on the struggle to protect our interests and to extend the boundaries of freedom, all in quiet dignity without losing our faith and determination to be victorious in the end.

James J. Na is a D.C.-based foreign policy fellow with the Discovery Institute. James writes regularly on foreign affairs and culture at his The Asianist and Guns and Butter blogs.