Questions Remain About U.S. Deaths in Iraq

By: Greg Mitchell

Updated at 12:20 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

Since my article for E&P Online one week ago about the media misrepresenting the American death toll in Iraq, we have been flooded with e-mails commenting on this subject. Many have raised troubling new angles or provided tips on mysteries surrounding “non-combat” fatalities, which we are investigating.

It is too soon to tell whether this article, and the wide discussion it seems to have provoked, has had an effect on coverage. The article charged that the media, taking a cue from the Pentagon, routinely refers only to U.S. deaths by combat in Iraq since early May (now around 40) rather than the much higher number of all deaths (now approaching 100), which include an unusually high number of motor accidents, suicides, and unexplained “non-combat” deaths.

As recently as Wednesday, the front page of The New York Times referred simply to “attacks that have killed 40 American soldiers since President Bush declared the end of major combat in May.”

On the same day, however, a CNN update took the unusual approach of mentioning the total death toll first, before noting the lower number of deaths in combat.

Two days ago we presented a selection from the first batch of e-mail response to the article. Here is another provocative sample:

My husband is a war veteran and it makes the two of us crazy that the media is doing this. Hope you don’t mind but everytime I hear or see a reporter do this I am quoting you and your article with a link to it. The attempt to sanitize the deaths of these soldiers is shameful.
Joan and Pete Ingolia

Besides more accurate reporting on U.S. troops killed in Iraq, I’m curious about those listed simply as wounded. There is a tendency to assume, well, OK, they were “just” wounded, just a flesh wound, that sort of thing, they’ll recover nicely with treatment and down-home, self-deprecating humor from Hawkeye and Trapper.
Instead, “wounded” might mean the loss of limbs, having one’s legs blown off by a mine. Sadly, I doubt the majority of the public appreciates this possibility, given a lifetime of TV and movies where the hero takes a bullet, rips off part of his sleeve with his teeth, bandages himself up, and soldiers on heroically.
Perhaps it might be more meaningful to replace “wounded” with “maimed” or “disfigured” or whatever is the appropriate word under the circumstances.

Robert P.J. Day

I resent the spin you are trying to place on the number of Americans killed in Iraq. You are trying to make out that the “Mainstream Media” is in cahoots with the government in an attempt to hide the death tolls. I know you are trying to do a job but please lay off the yellow journalism.
I agree with you that all of these deaths are tragic, but the military is a DANGEROUS occupation, even in peace time. I would be willing to bet that the percentage of non-combative deaths is comparable to the death count for any given theater where U.S. personnel are stationed.
Have you ever read
Stars and Stripes? A day doesn’t go by where you don’t read about some poor person who gets killed through accident, stupidity, or otherwise. So stop making it out that the truth is being hidden from the American people.
Scott Wilson

Some claim that the “non-combat” death rate is little different than what you find in the usual “peacetime” Army. I’ve found Department of Defense statistics (“Mortality Trends Among Active Duty Personnel, 1992-2001,” MSMR Volume 09, Number 01, January 2003) which cite a peacetime mortality rate of 57.38 soldiers per 100,000 per year, all services. Fifty-three percent of all deaths were “attributable to accidents,” while twenty percent were suicides, and eighteen percent disease deaths. None were combat-related; this is a peacetime survey.
So, given the Iraq deployment of approximately 150,000 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and taking the first two months since Mr. Bush declared the end of major combat operations — if you do the math you would expect 7.6 fatalities in peacetime. But the number of stated accidental deaths among American military personnel in Iraq approximates 60 for that period.
An army at war is much more accident-prone than one at peace these days, but is it more than eight times more so? Or is reporting “combat deaths” (i.e., deaths directly caused by an enemy combatant) as distinctly different than “accidental deaths” making a facile distinction? Shouldn’t the cause of these deaths be examined and reported more fully, and categorized by the press according to a more subtle, independent standard, and not one that parrots the monochrome one of the Pentagon?
Reports that echo Pentagon pronouncements shaded to encourage Americans to believe that Iraq is a less dangerous place for its troops than it really is serve an administration that seeks to minimize the cost of this invasion.
As a second matter, today’s combat evacuation and care system is the very best, and saves the lives of soldiers who would have surely died from their wounds if they had sustained them in World War II or even Vietnam. That is an improvement that should be applauded, but it conceals the level of violence in modern American warfare generally, and in Iraq, specifically, when comparing it with past American conflicts.
Failing to cite the number of wounded or accidentally injured along with the accidentally and deliberately killed makes Iraq seem safer than it is for American troops. Again, I think this a disservice to the truth and the press should expose it.

Brian Broadus
Charlottesville, Va.

Don’t you find it difficult to believe that with occasional exception, only — and exactly — one soldier is reported killed every day? With 150,000 spread over a hostile field the size of California, are the odds not against such arithmetic? If more than one soldier is killed at remote and separate parts of Iraq, and they are from remote and separate parts of America, why report more than one death on that day? Who will know? Why not play into the evident American comfort with one loss per day?
Mark Dowie

Has ANY U.S. newspaper published an exhaustive survey of U.S., Allied, and Iraqi casualties due to the war and occupation?
As an aside, one might want to point out that the official cause of death listed as a “non-hostile” gunshot wound is either:
A) An accidental discharge, which is not something that generally happens when soldiers are in garrison, and thus should be counted as a combat casualty — just like “friendly fire” or “blue on blue” deaths; or
B) Suicide, which is particularly disturbing, because it means that officers leading the troops are missing the warning signs of a suicidal subject.

Brad Smith
Los Angeles

Thanks for the article. It was cathartic.
T. Takemoto

Although I was sickened when I read your story, I was not surprised. I have long suspected that these so-called “accidents” were occurring under sinister circumstances. Yes, war breeds such tragedies. But in this war, they are occurring in far greater proportion than normal, and that’s because they aren’t really accidents. As to the suicides, they also need to be scrutinized. Just what drives these young people with their entire lives ahead of them to reach such a low point?
I have observed that during the entire course of this misadventure, the so-called “free press” has largely behaved in the manner of a government-owned propaganda agency. I urge you to continue shining a light into this dark corner of the war effort.

John R. Lusk
Lakewood, Ohio

I have written all three networks and NPR about the ” 30 dead since May 1st” phenomenon in the media. It is disgusting that they do not number all dead and wounded from day 1. There are over a thousand wounded but we don’t hear about it. And yes, it is clear there is alot of combat related vehicular “accidents.” As usual the media doesn’t want the people to be informed.
Jane Bardis Jenks

Another fascinating aspect of the reporting of casualties in Iraq, or lack of reporting, is the dearth of reporting on the deaths of Iraqi citizens (soldier or civilian) since the “end” of the war — except the celebration at the killing of Saddam’s sons. Since the Iraqis are a supposedly free people now, and their country is under occupation by U.S. and other foreign entities, it would seem that death and injury to these people might warrant some coverage. now reports between 6,000 and 7,800 civilian deaths in Iraq. But not a whisper of this in the mainstream news, and not much in the alternative press either. Everytime I hear a news report that begins, “Another American soldier was killed today….” I wonder about the Iraqis also killed, and how those deaths can be so blithely ignored. In as little as five words, i.e. “Twelve Iraqis were also killed,” a small measure of balance could be brought to the reporting.
Thanks for your enlightening article and the chance to comment.

Ames Flagg
Johnson, Vt.

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