Odierno’s performance was unconvincing to anyone who knew the score. He was speaking on July 24, well before the month had ended. By the time all the casualties were counted and reported (not until early August), icasualties.org was giving the July toll as 80, only one less than in March, during the opening stages of the surge.
Worse, comparisons to previous months in the spring don’t take into account the searing summer environment. Baghdad in July is one of those torrid colonial locales of which Noel Coward was speaking in his 1923 song when he wrote that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” The dip in casualties is always substantial in July, since guerrillas usually prefer not to operate with heavy explosives when it is 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.
July 2003: 48
July 2004: 54
July 2005: 54
July 2006: 43
July 2007: 80
Meanwhile, the statistics for the hapless Iraqis themselves are no less discouraging. According to icasualties.org, the Iraqi civilian and military death toll from political violence in July 2007 was 1,690, a 25 percent increase from the July 2006 number, 1,280. (There was also a 25 percent increase in Iraqi casualties in July 2007 over June 2007, meaning the trend was going in the wrong direction any way you look at it.) These statistics — bad enough as they are — are typically understated by a substantial margin because passive tallying by media outlets misses many deaths.
On CNN’s “This Week at War” for July 28, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said of Iraq, “I think we have reduced the amount of violence overall, but not to the point where the psychology has fundamentally changed, and Iraqi political leaders are not helping much yet in this process.”
But by what measure, exactly, have “we reduced” the “amount of violence”? The continual reports of bombings and casualties in Iraq can have a numbing effect, but consider this: Iraq’s population is one-eleventh the size of America’s. If people were being killed on a similar scale here, we would have seen more than 18,000 deaths in July alone from bombings and political assassinations. (And this number would not even count ordinary criminal homicides, which are common in Iraq.)
Surely if the troop escalation has been working, then the number of guerrilla attacks must be declining, right? But as recently as June, according to a report by Reuters, daily attacks by guerrillas that month hit an astounding all-time high of 177.8 per day on average. That is, not since May 1, 2003, have there been as many attacks per day as in June 2007, with a total of 5,334. May’s total number of attacks was similar, and year to year, the number of attacks in June was 46 percent greater than in June 2006. About 18 percent of the operations in June targeted civilians, and a slightly higher percentage were aimed at Iraqi security forces. The remainder, more than 60 percent, were aimed at U.S. troops (guerrillas launched 3,671 attacks on U.S. troops in June alone, up 7 percent from May).
Guerrillas pulled off numerous horrific bombings throughout July, many of them in central Baghdad under the noses of the U.S. military commanders. On a single day in late July, wire services reported nearly 150 deaths from political violence throughout the country, including three bombings in downtown Baghdad. Recent weeks have seen worrisome political assassinations continue, roiling civil society. Two senior aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani were cut down in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, raising fears that the spiritual leader (who is one of the few forces for peace in the country) might himself be assassinated, sparking a blood bath. On July 10, guerrillas stormed the home of Abdul Hamid Saleh, mayor of the major Sunni city of Samarra north of the capital, and dispatched him. The head of Mosul’s election commission was shot to death. On July 26, gunmen in downtown Baghdad rubbed out the general director of the Housing and Construction Ministry. On the 27th, the head of the Lawyers Guild in Basra was assassinated. Sectarian death squads execute an average of 20 residents of Baghdad every day, leaving their corpses in the streets for police to find. The majority of the victims are Sunni Arabs.
Some proponents of the surge may have rightly argued that an effort to take on the guerrillas and militias will produce higher casualties in the short term — but some of them are also saying the strategy has already begun working and is producing lower casualties and more security for Iraqis, which is a blatant falsehood.
What has surged is not calm or political compromise, but rather the number of guerrilla attacks, the number of U.S. troop deaths compared to the same months in previous years, and the number of Iraqi casualties. That some of the U.S. media and the U.S. public have allowed themselves to be manipulated into thinking the “numbers” from Iraq are a cause for optimism echoes the sloppy and wishful thinking that got U.S. into this mess in the first place.
Iraqi access to electricity and even food and water has fallen, 2 million have been displaced internally and another million abroad since April of 2003. That is not encouraging, to say the least. The “national unity government” of Prime Minister al-Maliki is on the brink of total collapse, as the bad news piles up.
Indeed, the power of positive thinking is an old American value. But sometimes it causes people to fall for pyramid schemes, or even worse.