Columnists > Voices

It could be worse

The cost of war in Iraq-and how it compares to other dangerous pursuits

Issue: "California's total recall," Aug. 2, 2003

If you knew that the morning news, every single day for the next two years, would include word that yet another American had been killed in Iraq, how would that affect your attitude toward the war there?

What about one American death per day for the next five years? Or two per day?

Americans like bargains. And that probably includes peace and world stability. Yet how can you know whether you're getting a bargain unless you do the calculations? In common parlance, we call this "comparison shopping." But we do way too little of that in our approach to public-policy issues. We listen instead to propaganda and scare stories.

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So grab your calculator and let's do some hard thinking.

Comparison No. 1 is historical, comparing present costs with those paid in other wars in which Americans lost their lives. The chart speaks for itself. Although I created it out of some fairly basic and easily available historical data, the column "Deaths per day" includes a critical figure most Americans haven't been provided as they do their comparison shopping.

We do not discount in the least the agony and grief associated with even one soldier's death-indeed, we honor those men and women most-when we note about such numbers that smallest is best. Especially if blood is the currency we pay for the Iraqis' freedom and a more peaceful region of the world, then we want to spill as little of it as possible. But in such a context, no one can look at the wonderfully tiny figure at the bottom of that column without exclaiming, "Thank God!"

When you go on then and adjust these figures for the nation's population growth, as in the last two columns, the disparities become startlingly dramatic. We've been losing 1.4 lives every day for the last four months; that figure compares now to a rate of 102 lives daily during the American Revolution, 27 lives daily during Vietnam, and a staggering 3,108 lives every single day during the Civil War.

Comparison No. 2 relates to loss of life from other causes. Throughout the United States during the year 2000, for example, 115 people died every single day from motor-vehicle accidents. Another 37 people died every day simply from falling, and 35 more from accidental poisoning. Every single day that year, 15 people died of suffocation, 10 from fire and burns, and nine from drowning. In fact, there are at least two dozen causes of death (not counting sickness) more dangerous than the war in Iraq.

To all of which, of course, opponents of the war in Iraq might well say: "But we don't know how to stop traffic accidents, or to keep people from falling and drowning. We do know how to stop the killing of Americans in Iraq. Let's just get them out of there."

Opponents of the war might well say that. But they don't. They don't have either the courage or the discipline to say anything like that, for they know that "just getting out" is no plan at all. Without a plan of their own, the best they can do is to chip away at confidence in the plan now in place, imperfect though it may be.

That's why the media keep hammering away: "Another American death this morning in Iraq," they'll say. "Two more deaths last night. That's five over the weekend." Then the not-so-subtle transition to this: "And the president's approval ratings have taken another dive."

Some would say it's just too hard for them to get a graph and statistics like these to communicate on TV or radio. It's funny, though; these folks can usually find a technique for doing the things they're really motivated to do. It's not as though the popular media have never been used to help Americans do some comparison shopping.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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