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4,000 Troop Deaths: A Number That Just Scratches the Surface

I'm in rare agreement with former Bush spokesman Tony Snow, who said of an earlier milestone -- the 2,500th U.S. fatality in Iraq -- "It's a number."

For those who have lost a loved one to this disastrous conflict, the important number is 1 -- and he or she has a name. For the rest of us, the 4,000th U.S. military death is a data point that obscures the reality of the Iraq conflict as much as it illuminates it.

I don't say that only because Iraqis have suffered so much higher losses, or because it doesn't account for the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been hemorrhaged to support the occupation -- the "opportunity costs" of this conflict -- although both of those things are true.

The number is insignificant because it only scratches the surface of the damage done to the (very) young men and women we've sent into the meatgrinder, most of whom were filled with idealism and a real sense of purpose before being deployed to Iraq.

The innovations in trauma medicine over the past 25 years -- a field that has advanced in leaps and bounds since the Vietnam conflict -- has resulted in a death toll that belies the level of violence those troops face in Iraq every day.

In 2005, USA Today reported on the "signature wound" of the Iraq war:

A growing number of U.S. troops whose body armor helped them survive bomb and rocket attacks are suffering brain damage as a result of the blasts. It's a type of injury some military doctors say has become the signature wound of the Iraq war.
Known as traumatic brain injury, or TBI, the wound is of the sort that many soldiers in previous wars never lived long enough to suffer. The explosions often cause brain damage similar to "shaken-baby syndrome," says Warren Lux, a neurologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Almost 30,000 American troops have been wounded in Iraq, according to official counts. But that's just the official figure; the Pentagon doesn't have adequate mechanisms in place to accurately track the number of wounded soldiers, and unofficial estimates range to 100,000. How many of those soldiers and Marines suffered wounds so severe that they would have been KIA in any of America's previous conflicts? Nobody knows for sure, but it's clear that 4,000 is a number that doesn't tell the whole story of this war's impact on U.S. servicemen and women.

Many of them will return home to find a society that idealizes the troops in abstraction, but largely ignores their real physical and psychological needs. They will face terrible struggles to rebuild broken lives with inadequate support from the nation they believed they were defending. Many will suffer from undiagnosed psychological trauma, and far too many will take their own lives -- becoming casualties of the Iraq war years after the fact, casualties that will appear in none of the official numbers historians will record.

The greatest significance of this morbid milestone may be that it focuses Americans' attention on the horrific consequences of this occupation for a moment or two. As Agence France Presse reported recently, Iraq has largely become out-of-sight out-of-mind for too many of us:
A sharp fall in US media coverage of the Iraq war has left Americans less interested in and knowledgeable about the conflict, a report by the independent Pew Research Center showed Wednesday.
A scant three percent of news stories in February were devoted to the Iraq war, compared with around 15 percent in July last year, and the US public has not perceived the war, which began nearly five years ago, as a top news story since October, the report noted.
Those numbers say a lot about this conflict, and why we're still not close to bringing it to an end.

A better number to measure the impact on U.S. military personnel from the five-year conflict in Iraq is around one million. That's the estimated number of U.S. troops that have had at least one deployment to Iraq, and all of them will be changed, in ways great and small, for the rest of their lives.

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