Sometime soon, the U.S. military will suffer the 4,000th death of the war in Iraq.
When the 1,000th American died in September 2004, the insurgency was just gaining steam. The 2,000th death came as Iraq held its first elections in decades, in October 2005. The U.S. announced its 3,000th loss on the last day of 2006, at the end of a year rocked by sectarian violence.
The 4,000th death will come with the war further out of the public eye, and replaced by other topics on the front burner of the U.S. presidential campaigns.
Analysts say the 4,000 dead, while an arbitrary marker, could inject the war debate back into the campaign season, particularly with the war’s fifth anniversary on Thursday. Or, with overall violence lower in Iraq, the milestone could pass with far less public discussion than in past years.
Last year was the deadliest for American troops in Iraq, with 901 troops killed. As of Sunday, at least 3,988 Americans have died in Iraq.
James Carafano, a military analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that the decline in violence since 30,000 troops were sent into Iraq last summer has been more important in the public’s eye.
“Americans are not casualty averse. They are failure averse,” Carafano said. “They were unhappy with the lack of progress and spiraling violence. That is why you have seen public support rebound after it was clear the surge was working.”
The number killed in Iraq is far less than in other modern American wars. In Vietnam, the U.S. lost on average about 4,850 troops a year from 1963-75. In the Korean war, from 1950-53, the U.S. lost about 12,300 soldiers a year.
A 2006 Duke University study found that it was 100 times as likely that an American knew one of the 292,000 Americans killed in World War II than someone today would know a service member slain in Iraq.
Soldiers and analysts alike say the impact of the deaths in Iraq has been largely lost on many Americans who have no personal connection to the war.
“It’s still a war that hasn’t involved a draft or an increase in taxes,” said Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This is a war that most Americans continue to feel they don’t have to make sacrifices for.”
Alterman said that while the Iraq war has not played as big of a role in the campaigns as once expected, the confluence of 4,000 slain troops, the fifth anniversary and the crucial Pennsylvania Democratic primary could push the war back to the forefront.
“It may be that stacking three things together refocuses the debate,” he said. “Or it may be that people are simply tired of the war, tired of talking about it and are wanting to think of something else.”
Carafano said that the public’s seeming indifference to casualty figures is the rule _ not the exception _ for most wars America has been in.
“In war and everything else Americans get energized when they are touched in a personal way. In most wars, not just Iraq, that does not happen,” he said.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said during a recent speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York that the situation for U.S. soldiers in Iraq is “infinitely better” now that during 2006, when Americans were losing the equivalent of a battalion _ about 600 to 1,000 soldiers _ a month to deaths and injuries.
But McCaffrey said the U.S. military is being drained of its energy and morale because of the slow pace of training that will allow more Iraqi soldiers to take over the fight. American soldiers, he said, are “becoming increasingly unsure about the position they’ve been placed in.”
What that position is will largely be determined by who wins the presidency in November.
“The military is very conscious of the long-term costs of the war,” Alterman said. “But we have a civilian-led military and it is for the civilians to decide when we fight and how we fight. As much as the military is conscious of the costs of continuing to fight, they are also aware it isn’t their decision whether to stop or not.”
E&P Editor Greg Mitchell’s new book, the first probe of five years of the year, is titled “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.” To learn more or order, go to blog