Sometime soon the war in Iraq will claim the life of the 2,000th G.I., a gut-wrenching milestone in the bloodiest conflict for the United States since Vietnam. Reports of deaths, particularly recently, have been coming in at a frightening clip. On Oct. 6, six Marines were killed by roadside bombs in attacks near Qaim and Karmah, bringing the total of American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq to 1,951.
Vietnam analogies can be dubious or prescient, depending on whom you ask. The 2,000th G.I. fell in Vietnam sometime during 1965, six years after the first two Americans were killed in a guerrilla attack. The final death count from Vietnam was 58,209.
The death rate in Iraq may not compare to those of World War I and World War II, in which, respectively, 116,516 and 405,399 U.S. soldiers were killed. Nevertheless, nearly three years into the war in Iraq, the mounting death toll doesn’t seem to register with Americans. If Korea was the forgotten war, Iraq is invisible.
Military analysts say the outcry over deaths in Iraq is muted because the burden of war falls on a tiny percentage of Americans and their families. Most Americans simply don’t have any personal connection to the battlefield.
To be precise, less than 1 percent of 297 million Americans are engaged in active duty military or the reserves, the lowest percentage of the population serving under arms in a century. Some Marines who died in Iraq were on their third tour of duty.
Americans felt other wars. Drafted civilians marched alongside career soldiers. More than 12 percent of Americans were involved in World War II, according to data compiled by Louisiana State University. Over 4 percent of Americans were in the military during Vietnam.
“Fewer Americans are serving, and fewer Americans know people who are serving,” says Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq vet and the executive director of Operation Truth, an advocacy group for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “So many people are going about their business without thinking about our soldiers fighting and dying a half a world away. Maybe the 2,000th death will remind people of the human cost of this war, given how few people are really touched by it.”
It’s not just eerie that fewer Americans feel the burden of war. Politicians no longer have to fear a broad public backlash for waging an unwise and costly conflict. David M. Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and history professor at Stanford University, calls that phenomenon “a standing invitation to military adventurism.”
After Vietnam, the military reorganized to restrict politicians from engaging in another unpopular war. In what’s called the Abrams Doctrine, after Gen. Creighton Abrams, Pentagon brass backed active-duty fighting units with reserve units, or weekend warriors, for transportation and other logistical support in a big ground war. It was basic politics: The Pentagon figured a president would be reluctant to mobilize waves of weekend warriors from across the American heartland without broad public support. “The logic was to compel the president to carefully evaluate the political price before undertaking a Vietnam-scale military deployment,” Kennedy says.
Since then, rapid advancements in military technology have allowed the United States to dispatch an exponentially more lethal, but smaller, all-volunteer force. “What was supposed to be the restraining logic behind the Abrams doctrine has been seriously attenuated,” Kennedy says.
In a July 26 opinion piece in the New York Times, “Bring Back the Citizen Soldier,” Kennedy argued that compulsory military service would put the American public more in tune with the fate of the G.I. “A universal duty to service — perhaps in the form of a lottery, or of compulsory national service with military duty as one option among several — would at least ensure that the civilian and military sectors do not become dangerously separate spheres,” he wrote.
The media has also struggled to cover the violence in Iraq. Americans see few images of their own dead in Iraq. Roughly two dozen Western photographers are covering a war in a country the size of California. When photographers do manage to capture images of dead G.I.’s, some editors are reluctant to publish the photographs.
Early this month, 1,000 G.I.’s were days into “Operation Iron Fist” in western Iraq. It was a major operation to cut off insurgents entering Iraq from Syria. Five G.I.’s were dead. The only images on television were clouds of smoke.
Editors who shy away from images of dead Americans may be in tune with their readers or viewers. Horrible as it sounds, a few dead Marines each day just isn’t news. Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, and a former CNN world affairs correspondent, says his students have expressed relatively little interest in war news because of the monotonous pace of casualties. A few soldiers die each day, mostly from roadside bombs. “It is like a drip,” Begleiter says. “Two marines killed here, and a chopper down there. It is not really a war, or they don’t see it as a war. It is just low-intensity conflict.”
The White House and Pentagon have also worked to keep the wounded and dead figuratively and literally in the dark. The Pentagon barred photos of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and has scheduled flights of wounded so that they arrive at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland only at night. (Military officials have said both policies have nothing to do with P.R. considerations.)
“It is kind of out of sight, out of mind,” says Begleiter, who used legal pressure to force the Department of Defense to release photographs of coffins at Dover.
Meanwhile, President Bush has yet to attend the funeral of a fallen G.I., which would generate significant media coverage. He has met with hundreds of family members of fallen soldiers at military bases across the county, making him arguably the U.S. president most intimately familiar with military families’ grief. But those meetings occur only in private. No cameras. No press.
In Iraq, the United States is pushing the military to the limit — maybe beyond. According to the Department of Defense, 1.1 million American service personnel had served in Iraq or Afghanistan (mostly in Iraq) by the end of June. Almost 300,000 of those have now served more than one tour. Some have gone overseas three times.
The Pentagon says 15,000 G.I.’s have been wounded. Half of those, given the severity of their wounds, could not return to duty. But that number is misleading. The statistics, released in Department of Defense “casualty status” reports, only count G.I.’s wounded by the bullets and bombs of the enemy. The reports exclude tens of thousands of soldiers who became ill or were injured in other ways.
The U.S. Transportation Command says that by the end of August, it had evacuated 23,576 G.I.’s from Iraq and Afghanistan for injuries or illnesses that were not directly caused by combat. Stars and Stripes reports that the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, treated its 25,000th patient from Iraq or Afghanistan in July, including some civilians and coalition partner soldiers.
The Department of Defense says it excludes sick and injured soldiers from casualty statistics to fit “the common understanding of the average newspaper reader,” the Pentagon said in a statement. However, it’s a strange twist of logic that if a Humvee rolls over in Baghdad, the Pentagon will count a soldier killed in the wreck as a casualty, while a soldier paralyzed in the same wreck is not included in public casualty reports.
Internet chatter has accused the Department of Defense of similar fuzzy math with respect to the dead. The allegation is that the Department of Defense is hiding the number of soldiers killed in the war by failing to count the deaths of soldiers who die from their wounds after returning to the United States. That appears to be incorrect. By the end of August, the department had listed 64 G.I.’s who died outside Iraq as casualties, according to Iraq Coalition Casualties, which counts department press statements on deaths. “If you die as a result of something that happened to you in theater, we would announce that,” says Pentagon spokeswoman Martha Rudd.
In recent months, the antiwar movement has gained momentum with a push from Cindy Sheehan. At the same time, support among Americans for the war in Iraq is at an all-time low. According to a CBS News poll published Oct. 6, only 32 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush has handled the war.
But if we’ve hit a meaningful tipping point in public opinion, it may be hard to tell. Walter Cronkite is widely credited with turning public opinion against the Vietnam War with a pivotal Feb. 27, 1968, commentary. Cronkite called the war “mired in stalemate” and chided Washington officials for “the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.” But there is no reporter with Cronkite’s power now.
“I don’t know if there is a magic number that most people will tolerate,” says David R. Segal, a military sociology professor at the University of Maryland. “I think what happens is the American people do go through a kind of rough mental calculation of what the costs of the war are and what the benefits are. My sense is that 2,000 is going to be more important, in part because people are now aware that there were no weapons of mass destruction and there was no link to al-Qaida. The reasons for going to war are going away.”