Iraq's War Dead

This week in Iraq, we reached a heart-breaking milestone: the 2,000th American soldier died in combat, fighting what we now know was always a war of choice and ideological preference.

For those who opposed the invasion, it's a moment to mourn our impotence: millions of us around the world did our best to stop this bloody disaster before it started, but we failed.

The real human cost, of course, is far greater than 2,000. It includes the 198 members of the "coalition of the willing" who have died, almost 300 private contractors, 73 journalists, the 15,220 Americans who have been wounded, and the invisible dead from what the Guardian's Julian Borger called the "extraordinarily high number of accidents, suicides and other non-combat deaths in the ranks that have gone largely unreported in the media."

And then there's the sad fact that those deceased Americans and allies are a fraction of the number of Iraqi dead.

Extrapolating from a study of post-traumatic stress disorder published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 41,000 U.S. marines and army troops reported that they believed they had killed at least one Iraqi civilian in the 15 months following the 2003 invasion.

Estimates of Iraqi troops killed during the invasion range from 5,000 to as many as 45,000 projected by the Guardian. General Tommy Franks guessed it was 30,000.

While we're supposed to consider these "bad guys" and ignore their deaths, the majority were young men trying to escape poverty in a country with an unemployment rate as high as 70 percent during the sanctions regime.

The real human toll includes, too, the estimated 3,450 Iraqi police and security forces who have been killed in what is already a low-grade civil war. And according to Iraq Body Count, a website that gathers media accounts of civilian deaths, between 26,000 and 30,000 Iraqi civilians have died from coalition actions through Monday.

But even those totals are dwarfed by the number of dead -- by some estimates over a million -- caused by the U.N sanctions that started with Bush I, and continued under President Bill Clinton, whose Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, once described the effects of the sanctions on Iraq's children as "worth it."

And even when we include all of those lives lost, we still don't begin to scratch the surface of the real human costs of this war -- the permanent emotional scars that war inevitably leaves on all of its participants, victims and victors alike.

Public support for this war has been sustained by a willful ignorance of the damage being done. On some level, Americans need a sanitized view of conflicts like Iraq to keep their dream of America's righteousness alive. Sure, the newspapers, the White House and the Pentagon have refined their techniques of repressing the numbers of the dead in Iraq, but the truth is there's a public appetite for the version of events they offer.

It is the perception that we are prosecuting a war that is less than righteous -- far more than recurring images of flag-draped coffins -- that will sap public support. The dead U.S. soldiers, dead children, dead Iraqi civilians are all the result of the same thing: 14 years of remorseless and cynical policy conducted by an unaccountable government and abetted by a citizenry that will stay loyal so long as the real human cost remains hidden.

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