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.

As for the present, all the same data that show a major decline in U.S. and Iraqi casualties since last summer also show that the reduction of casualties has now plateaued and may be rising. Al Qaeda and the extreme elements of the JAM have every incentive to find ways to raise the U.S. casualties between now and November, and will be seeking ways to use bombings to raise the rate and number. These attacks may be far more important over the months to come than the 4,000 figure.

There is a great deal of talk about the ultimate future dollar cost of the war if we stay. Much of this discussion somewhat unrealistically assumes that the dollar cost of fighting and aid remains relatively constant. In practice, success in moving to strategic overwatch and shifting the burden to the ISF and Iraqi government expenditures would actually sharply reduce the out year dollar costs. The same is true of the longer term trends in killing and wounded.

But, if we are in Iraq through the end of the next administration, the real benchmark may still be more than 5,000 killed and 15,000-20,000 more wounded before the costs in blood are over.

In short, there is no easy way to describe the meaning of 4,000 dead. We cannot credibly yet predict the future, or talk of whether or not their sacrifice will have strategic meaning. We cannot divorce that sacrifice from the sacrifice of the living, and we cannot predict the future cost in blood any more than we can predict the cost in dollars. About all we can be certain of is that the kinds of clear cut predictions that emerge from the polarized political debate over the war describe both a defeat and a victory that do not yet exist.