At the beginning of the Iraq War, an accidental helipcopter crash killed several American soldiers. A general said about the accident: "What we do is dangerous. Even in peacetime." Indeed, year in and year out, an average of one to two American soldiers die every day, during peacetime, as a result of accidents. This casualty rate has never attracted any public attention. Accidental deaths in peacetime never make headlines, notwithstanding their relative frequency.
There have been 53 combat deaths in Iraq in the 90-plus days since May 1--roughly one every other day, about half the Army's accidental death rate during peacetime. Yet every one of these deaths has been front-page news. Why?
Not because of the strategic significance of this casualty rate, which is zero--just as the roughly equal rate of accidental deaths of troops in Iraq has no impact on the strategic situation there. And not because such an intense focus on near-zero casualty rates is a standard staple of war reporting. Past wars have, needless to say, generated vastly greater casualty rates. At the height of the Vietnam war, to which liberals longingly compare Iraq, an average of 40 American servicemen died each day--75 times the current rate in Iraq--and fatalities in World Wars I and II were far greater still. Yet in none of these conflicts was each casualty considered front-page news.
It is fair to say that no country has ever had to fight a war under this kind of scrutiny--where the death of every soldier is trumpeted in front-page headlines. It is doubtful whether a war can be fought under such circumstances. It has become a political commonplace to say that the continuing casualties in Iraq will, at some point, become a political problem for the Bush administration. I don't doubt that this is true, given the tone of the news coverage, which suggests on a daily or near-daily basis that every fatality is proof of the failure of our effort in Iraq.
If we ask why the minuscule combat casualty rate in Iraq receives such intense publicity, while the nearly-equal accidental death rate there is almost ignored, and accidental deaths of soldiers in other parts of the world are never reported, there can be only one answer: the focus by the American press on every combat fatality represents a conscious effort to undermine the war effort and the Bush administration. Why else this sudden concern for the well-being of the American G.I.? Why else the ritual incantation: “...the fifty-third combat death since President Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1”? Why else the studied refusal to put the minimal casualties in Iraq into any kind of historical context? Why else do the front-page stories on every casualty crowd out objective coverage of the great progress that has been made in Iraq in an astonishingly brief period of time?
And consider the tactics of the anti-American forces in Iraq. They launch attacks on a daily basis, not seeking military advantage of any kind but seeking rather to kill an American soldier every day or two. Why? What is the goal? Publicity in the American press, primarily. The only hope of the desperate Baathists and other desperadoes loose in Iraq is that the American people will tire of the war and the reconstruction effort and go home. The withdrawal of American troops from Somalia after casualties were sustained in Mogadishu made a deep impression on the Arab world, and serves as a model for insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere. And the Baathists would like nothing better than for Iraq to be perceived as a second Vietnam.
So the Baathists kill not for military advantage but for headlines, and American reporters and editors oblige them. Is it unfair to suggest that these parties work together for a common purpose--to discredit the Iraq war and the Bush administration with the American public?
Outraged liberals will say that the press must report what happens, and cannot be expected to suppress news of American casualties. Of course. But editorial judgment dictates the prominence given to stories and the context in which they are placed. Why does not the New York Times headline, each morning, “Man Killed In Car Accident In Iowa”? Presumably because such a death, while undoubtedly tragic for the man’s family, has no broader significance. But why is that so different from the death of a single soldier in Iraq, which has no strategic significance whatsoever? One could argue that every highway fatality is newsworthy because it casts doubt on the success of America’s effort to promote highway safety. But our newspapers have no interest in promoting such a theory; hence individual traffic deaths are not considered newsworthy. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly, as thousands of Americans are killed every day, some accidentally, some intentionally; some while engaged in noble enterprises, others not. Every day, reporters and editors decide which of these fatalities are newsworthy, what will be said about them, and in what context they will be placed.
So all I ask is that American newspapers start applying fair and objective news judgment to what is, in fact, a remarkably low casualty rate, under the circumstances. And stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy.