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Death Count Belies Iraq Strategy Shift

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: March 13, 2007

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Discussion of America’s war dead or war wounded invariably courts controversy. U.S. presidential candidates from either side of the aisle, John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL), recently stepped into the muck by inferring that the three thousand-plus American lives lost in Iraq were “wasted.” In response to the resulting uproar, both candidates later retracted and apologized for their comments (USA Today). But the incidents demonstrate the touchiness of these topics in the minds of many Americans. The ban on airing images of the caskets of killed soldiers (MotherJones.com) returning from Iraq sets off similar sentiments.

Then there is the issue of veteran care. The war has left thousands of soldiers wounded, both physically and mentally, and in need of constant health care long after they’ve left Iraq. The Washington Post’s revelations of poor conditions in Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s outpatient facility sparked controversy, congressional hearings, and firings. Earlier reports surfaced last month that the Pentagon had been underreporting the number of war wounded. The U.S. military pegs the number wounded from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan at about twenty-three thousand. But critics say that only accounts for those soldiers wounded in combat and that a more realistic number is closer to 53,000. Obama has pressed the departments of defense and veteran affairs for “honest figures on our troops.”

Of course, the numbers above only capture the lives lost or scarred by Americans fighting abroad. The United Kingdom has also sustained 134 casualties (Iraq Coalition Casualty Count) and other coalition members have sustained similar troop losses. Then there are the thousands of Iraqis who also have met early deaths. Yet there is no official headcount of those killed in Iraq by collateral damage. The Iraqi government and United Nations both publish rough estimates, mostly based on morgue fatalities. A number of outside organizations like IraqBodyCount.org base their findings on news reports. Johns Hopkins University publishes a biannual survey (PDF) in the Lancet. The group’s last such survey, which found that more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed violently, set off a storm of controversy and denials by U.S. officials. Critics charged the researchers with sloppy methodologies of statistical gathering. Others point to political biases. As this new Backgrounder points out, the study finds that, on average, one in seven Iraqi households had lost a loved one (compared to the Iraqi government, which puts the same statistic at one in eighty). Says Les Roberts, one of the report’s coauthors: “You wouldn’t have to call up very many Iraqis to confirm the truth.”

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