The Anonymous Casualties of War

As the number of casualties mounts daily, we all mourn the tragic losses of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The dispassionate statistics represent fathers, mothers, children, brothers and sisters who sacrificed their lives in support of the U.S. mission.

The statistics on Iraqi civilian violent deaths released last week by the United Nations are equally horrifying and overwhelming.

More than 3,000 innocent people -- their names and histories unknown to us -- were killed in August alone.

The British Web site, Iraq Body Count, estimates that as many as 48,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

Violence in Afghanistan, where the death toll is murky at best, is resurging.

Most of these deaths have been at the hands of the insurgency in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan -- but not all.

Many Americans are left feeling helpless when they hear news of the latest macabre figures.

I can't help but think of Marla Ruzicka, the 28-year-old human rights advocate who dedicated her life to helping the surviving family members of innocent men, women and children caught in U.S. crossfire on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The door-to-door civilian casualty surveys she conducted in the early phases of both wars led to groundbreaking legislation worth $45 million in assistance for civilian victims of war.

Inspiring, yes. Enough, not nearly.

Marla pushed on, insisting that the Pentagon release records on the dead, wounded and dispossessed.

With accurate information, she argued, the United States, along with humanitarian organizations, could better assist civilians accidentally harmed in the lethal crossfire.

Time and again, she was told that no such records existed.

In April of last year, Marla finally received the most promising evidence supporting her deeply held belief that a mountain of official civilian casualty statistics was being shrouded by the fog of war.

Marla had befriended a high-ranking U.S. military official in Iraq who disclosed to her that 29 civilians had been killed by small-arms fire in skirmishes between U.S. troops and insurgents in Baghdad during a specific narrow window of time.

The figures were limited in their geography and time frame, making them useless as a statistical indicator, but they did achieve one thing of fundamentally critical importance -- they proved that the U.S. military in Iraq was keeping its own body count.

A few days later, Marla's quest to unearth more extensive data was brutally cut short when a suicide bomber ended her life on Baghdad's Airport Road.

Jennifer Abrahamson is an author and freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has also worked for the United Nations in Africa and Afghanistan, which is where she first met Marla Ruzicka in 2002. Abrahamson and Ruzicka began collaborating on "Sweet Relief: The Marla Ruzicka Story" only months before Marla was killed by an IED in Iraq.

In the nearly 1½ years since her death, calls for the public release of civilian casualty records have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Congress is still waiting for a report on the Pentagon's procedures for recording civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is months overdue.

Ensuring that information about civilian casualties is systematically collected and maintained would help create the best possible record.

Then, it must be released to the public so the government and humanitarian organizations can identify and reach victims in need of assistance.

Furthermore, the Pentagon must establish a more effective civilian casualty compensation claims process, using the data at its disposal.

The one operating today in Baghdad relies on incomplete information and is applied inconsistently.

It can be easier for an Iraqi to obtain compensation for a car destroyed by a U.S. tank than for a dead child.

More accurate military records of civilian casualties would not only enable us to help grieving families rebuild their lives, it would also mitigate anger and resentment toward the United States, which is, at least in part, fueling the insurgency in Iraq.

Coming clean on civilian casualty data would not only help right the wrongs of the past, it would also help to prevent accidental death -- and fury -- in the future.

To its credit, the U.S. military strives to minimize civilian casualties.

Senior military officials earlier this year announced that American commanders were taking steps to decrease the chance of violent confrontations between troops and civilians during daily patrols.

Mitigating and preventing future mistakes would be much more effective with comprehensive, public records.

Equipped with little more than determination and a belief in moral responsibility, Marla gave a voice to the voiceless by collecting as much information as she could on civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is time for the Pentagon to pick up where Marla -- whose own voice was tragically silenced -- left off.

Jennifer Abrahamson is an author and freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has also worked for the United Nations in Africa and Afghanistan, which is where she first met Marla Ruzicka in 2002. Abrahamson and Ruzicka began collaborating on "Sweet Relief: The Marla Ruzicka Story" only months before Marla was killed by an IED in Iraq.