The Uncertain Meaning of 4,000 American Military Dead in Iraq

The 4,000-dead mark will symbolize the real cost of the UP.S. participation in the war in Iraq, and the courage and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. It will also inevitably trigger another wave of polarized debate. Those who oppose the war will see the 4,000 dead as further reason to end it. Those who support the war will point to military progress and say that future casualties will be much lower.

There is likely to be something of a saturation effect in this debate. There already are a host of Iraq-related issues to deal with. We will reach the 4,000 mark at a time when the fifth anniversary has already triggered a new wave of debate on its own, and Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker's testimony before Congress on Iraq progress will come in early April. It will interact with the $3 trillion war cost debate, the bitter exchanges between Democratic Party candidates, Iraqi debates over political accommodation, and al Qaeda's ongoing suicide attacks and atrocities.

This makes it likely that the level of debate over just how much a round number of killed matters may be less intense than it might be otherwise. No one will be able to avoid mentioning the number, but it will be one statistic among many.

As for its real world significance, the 4,000 figure is obviously a symbol. The grim fact is that 4,000 killed is really no different from 3,999 or 4,001. There are, however, several points that do deserve consideration when we reach this figure.

The wounded figure since March 19, 2003, is now well above 29,000. It is far, far higher than the number killed, and often has a more lasting impact on those who sacrifice as a human tragedy and in terms of costs. If one counts the number of men and women whose lives have been virtually destroyed by critical combat wounds and adds that total to the number killed, we reached 4,000 long ago. Far too much media coverage focuses only on "killed." There needs to be balance in counting all of the wounded, and far more attention paid to the number of critical physical and psychological wounds and disability cases. In many ways, news reporting on the "stats" of the fighting now covers only half the sacrifice of those who serve in uniform.

Tragic as this situation is, the actual casualty rate has been incredibly low by historical standards relative to Vietnam, Korea and previous wars. Far fewer have been killed and far fewer wounded. For all the debates over MRAPs and body armor, the United States has been able to sharply reduce the human cost of war. Those who have done so much to reduce casualty rates also deserve recognition. In practice, they often seem to receive virtually nothing but media and congressional criticism.

No one can really predict at this time whether we will be able to sharply reduce the future rate of casualties during 2009-2010, and move to "strategic overwatch" and reliance on the ISF for almost all the fighting. We could see a failure of political conciliation lead to more intense U.S. fighting and a new rise in casualty rates or even to U.S. withdrawal. The odds of success in Iraq now seem higher than those of defeat, and events seem more likely to steadily reduce U.S. casualties, but there are no certainties.

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