Numbering our dead

International | IRAQ: The grim business of war is no exact science, but web publishers are doing a better job than the Pentagon of keeping track of the costs

Issue: "Abortion: All the rage," May 8, 2004

There are casualty figures and then there are casualty figures. Take Colton Aikin. As a figure in war he was among 874 U.S. soldiers wounded during the first three weeks of April-a month when the United States witnessed more soldiers killed and wounded in action than at any time since its forces first entered Iraq. As a figure in life he is the son of Idaho residents Chuck and Ivy Aikin, a 2002 graduate of Pocatello High, a motorcycle and hunting enthusiast, and a wrestler.

Mr. Aikin's brother Wyatt, also an Army enlistee, is stationed in Missouri. His father runs a sporting goods store. His mother has been stationed bedside at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Mr. Aikin was transported last week several days after an improvised explosive device ripped through his barracks in Baqubah, leaving him with shrapnel wounds to the leg, arm, and hand.

Thus an extraordinary month of combat in Iraq-where casualty numbers have soared beyond anything in memory since the Vietnam era-inscribes itself into ordinary American lives.

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American military personnel killed in action looked likely to top 150 after a car bomb in Maymoudiyah on April 29 killed eight soldiers. Fighting in Fallujah may taper off after Central Command reached an agreement to hand over control of the city to the Iraqi army. Negotiations also moved forward for control of Najaf, where Shiite militias under Moqtada Sadr have dug in for weeks.

In the meantime, the fight for control of the Sunni and Shiite strongholds-combined with elevated terror attacks throughout central Iraq-has spiked casualty numbers. With it, counting the dead and wounded is a growing topic of interest. Following an announcement by ABC News that it would devote the April 30 episode of Nightline to broadcasting photos of every soldier killed since the start of the war, public focus on the numbers is likely only to increase.

Counting casualties is a grim, exacting business. Given the incoherent nature of fighting in Iraq, the Pentagon has opted for a minimalist approach to casualty counts that leaves important details wanting.

Casualty reports filter in from forward medical units in Iraq to Central Command, where a brief news release gives the bare facts of fatalities (centcom.mil). Once the family is notified, the Pentagon issues another release (defenselink.mil/releases/) stating a soldier's name, unit, age, and hometown.

The problem is those separate announcements are never collated in one location, and the Pentagon does not publish a systematic tally of casualties (unlike its reporting from other wars). Given the nature of attacks in Iraq, a soldier may be wounded and later die from the injury; yet without careful tracking-often cross-referenced with local newspaper accounts-Pentagon records alone don't tell the whole story.

By contrast, Britain's Ministry of Defense casualty accounts are positively humane. Once a service member killed in action is identified, the ministry publishes a full account of service, how the soldier was killed, along with comments from a commanding officer and the family (operations.mod .uk/telic/casualties .htm). So Brits learn that Corp. Richard Ivell, killed in a vehicle accident on Feb. 12, was a 29-year-old, married with three children. Or they learn that Sapper Robert Thomson, 22, before he was killed on Jan. 31 was a fan of the Motherwell Football Club and, according to his commanding officer, was "a ready wit and natural enthusiast" who was slated for promotion.

Americans who want to know more about their fallen soldiers will have to piece together such profiles. The websites of CNN and The Washington Post provide snapshots and names of the dead. While CNN's is arranged alphabetically, the Post's site is better because it is arranged chronologically but can be searched by name or branch of service. The Wall Street Journal's subscriber-only site offers a different tally, a flow chart showing the number of fatalities since last March. It lacks personal data but graphically portrays the rise and fall of conflict.

One of the best places to comprehend both numbers and lives is Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (lunaville.org/warcasualties /Summary.aspx). The website combines up-to-the-minute numbers of both the dead and the wounded, along with links to local newspaper accounts where the casualty figures become human figures. There Colton Aikin is a number, but he is also a fallen hero in Pocatello, where the Marshall Public Library board recently voted to waive overdue book fines for Iraq War veterans.


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