Iraq and Afghanistan: Counting our War Dead

By: Greg C. Reeson

In mid-2006, the media was obsessed with the fact that the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq had reached 2,500, a number repeatedly referred to as a “grim milestone” and a “tragic benchmark.” By the end of that year, the casualty count had reached 3,000 and the headlines were once again full of catchphrases about the mounting cost in blood and treasure.

Now, just about a quarter of the way through 2008, we have suffered our 4,000th casualty in Iraq. As expected, the media seized the opportunity to run headlines expressing shock and anger at the death toll, and some presidential candidates reiterated their calls for immediate withdrawal of American forces. Of course, this morbid fascination will soon fade and the media’s attention will turn once again to the increasingly bitter Obama – Clinton nominating contest and the country’s ongoing economic woes. But for the soldiers who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way, and for their families, the casualty count still matters, albeit in a very different way.

The vast majority of the military men and women I know and associate with are cognizant of the death toll numbers for both Afghanistan and Iraq, although the former receives far less news coverage than the latter. But we choose not to focus on any particular number, milestone, or benchmark because we make no distinction between the first casualty, the 500th casualty (which we will surpass in Afghanistan sometime in the coming weeks or months), and the 4,000th casualty. The reason is simple: each fallen soldier is equally important and no one casualty carries more weight or is more significant than any other. Instead of worrying about what number we happen to be on, we choose instead to focus on each individual life and each sacrifice made. We respect and care for each other in life and in death, and we pay tribute to our lost in deeply personal ways that those who have not worn the uniform cannot fully understand or appreciate.

Arbitrary numbers serve but one purpose: they dehumanize the true cost of war by reducing individual lives to cold statistics that do not pay sufficient tribute to the incredible burdens being borne by our soldiers and their families. They’re great for headlines, but in reality they mean little. Personally, each time we lose a soldier, I’d like to see the network television stations and the major newspapers devote some time and space to telling the American public about the life that was given on their behalf. By better knowing those who have sacrificed themselves for us, we can better appreciate their service to this nation.

Two years ago, when we reached the 2,500 mark for soldiers killed in Iraq, a dear friend of mine was in the middle of his third deployment in support of the global war on terror. It was his second trip to Afghanistan, and it came much too soon after a year-long deployment to one of the worst areas in Iraq’s al-Anbar province. As I write this, he is on his second deployment to Iraq and his fourth overseas tour since 9/11, this time in a dangerous section of East Baghdad. I share this because I believe he is the perfect example of what Americans have come to love and respect about their men and women in uniform. He is the epitome of duty, honor, courage, and selfless service to the nation that our soldiers demonstrate day in and day out, in war and in peace. He has been decorated for valor and he has shed his blood for his country. At the end of his current tour in Iraq, he will have been separated from his wife and children for 40 of the 77 months that have passed since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001. Yet he has never hesitated, not even for an instant, when his nation has called on him. And he is not unique. Rather, he is typical of those who decide to live their lives as American soldiers. After nearly two decades in uniform, I am still awestruck by the caliber and the character of the men and women with whom I am privileged to serve.

It is important that we as a nation understand the true cost of war. It is equally important that we understand the price this nation is paying is measured in individual lives lost, and not in arbitrary numbers chosen because they are mathematically round and are good for getting attention. I encourage everyone to go to the Department of Defense’s web site and sign up to receive DoD email press releases. Then anyone who wants to truly measure the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can read the almost daily casualty notifications, and in the process learn the names and hometowns of our fallen heroes and the names of the places where they gave their lives for their country. Because in the end, it is not the running total that matters, but the individual lives behind that running total that give us an appreciation for what it means to put service to the nation first, no matter the cost.

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