Thursday, September 01, 2005

Casualties in Times of War and Peace

Last week John Hinderaker had a very powerful post about casualty numbers, noting that if all you know is the number of dead, and not the context of surrounding events, then almost any military endeavor looks like a bad idea verging on catastrophe:
One wonders how past wars could have been fought if news reporting had consisted almost entirely of a recitation of casualties. The D-Day invasion was one of the greatest organizational feats ever achieved by human beings, and one of the most successful. But what if the only news Americans had gotten about the invasion was that 2,500 allied soldiers died that day, with no discussion of whether the invasion was a success or a failure, and no acknowledgement of the huge strategic stakes that were involved? Or what if such news coverage had continued, day by day, through the entire Battle of Normandy, with Americans having no idea whether the battle was being won or lost, but knowing only that 54,000 Allied troops had been killed by the Germans?

Hinderaker's point is well taken, particularly when he gets to the matter of casualties in times of peace:
The media's breathless tabulation of casualties in Iraq--now, over 1,800 deaths--is generally devoid of context. Here's some context: between 1983 and 1996, 18,006 American military personnel died accidentally in the service of their country. . . .

That's right: all through the years when hardly anyone was paying attention, soldiers, sailors and Marines were dying in accidents, training and otherwise, at nearly twice the rate of combat deaths in Iraq from the start of the war in 2003 to the present. Somehow, though, when there was no political hay to be made, I don't recall any great outcry, or gleeful reporting, or erecting of crosses in the President's home town. In fact, I'll offer a free six-pack to the first person who can find evidence that any liberal expressed concern--any concern--about the 18,006 American service members who died accidentally in service of their country from 1983 to 1996.

Along this same vein, I received this email the other day:
My father served as a B-24 pilot in WWII. I've been researching his service and the conditions under which this 20 year old flew 43 combat missions. During WWII 35,946 airmen died in accidents (other than battle deaths). Even the training is beyond our modern day comprehension. There were a total of 3,502 fatalities in primary, basic and advanced flight training. My Dad was part of the 450th Bomb Group (720th, 721st, 722nd and 723rd Squadrons) known as the Cottontails. Each squadron consisted of approximately 15 planes. During the 18 plus months they were a unit, 1,505 men were killed or missing in action. Could we or would we tolerate such losses today?

The source for these figures, my emailer tells me, is Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue (page 68). And his point is well taken, too.


Anonymous said...

Stunningly good take on a failing of the MSM and their drumbeat of casualties, casualties, casualties at the expense of context, context, context. It reflects poorly that their reportage suffers from the myopia of thinking people are not interested int he details or worse, people will disagree with their perspective when given full information. Thanks for the pointer, JVL, and your reader's personal anectdote. Given the current climate, I would conclude that we could never fight a war on the scale of WWII and hope to win.

Anonymous said...

A couple of weeks after D-Day, a squadron of American bombers mistakenly dropped 500 lbs. bombs on Allied troops and killed over 700 American troops (inlcuding a Lt. General). This happened in a matter of several minutes. Think about that and compare it to the total KIA'd in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 3.5 years.

This is in no way trying to trivialize those fallen soldiers; however, perspective needs to be taken when counting bodies.