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U.S. media misleading public on Iraq casualties
Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2003

By Matthew Riemer

( Media outlets have been spinning the information on U.S. casualties in a most curious way. Instead of regularly updating viewers and listeners concerning the number of killed and injured U.S. servicemen and women since the beginning of the war in Iraq, an insidious and disingenuous distinction is being emphasized more than ever: that of the "combat deaths" and the "non-combat deaths." Phrases like "hostile fire," "friendly fire," and "in-action deaths" are now commonplace in Washington's and the media's handbook of propaganda and euphemisms.

News agencies are constantly making the above distinction, reporting the number of U.S. soldiers killed by "hostile fire" as well as those killed in other ways but only keeping a running tabulation of those who have lost their lives in combat. Updates are almost unheard of regarding the number of casualties resulting from non-fatal injuries.

As of July 21st, 233 U.S. soldiers have died and over 1200 have been injured since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Yet the media focuses only on those killed by "hostile fire" as if those killed in other ways or those simply injured are less important. An Internet search will reveal a thousand stories about the numbers killed by "hostile fire" to every one that offers the complete details.

For example, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty ran a story by Charles Recknagel on July 15th that began, "As the number of U.S. troops killed by hostile fire steadily grows, Washington is becoming increasingly preoccupied with the poor security situation in Iraq and what it means for efforts to stabilize the country. The toll now stands at 32 U.S. soldiers killed since U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat over in Iraq on 1 May. Most of the soldiers' deaths have occurred in attacks on patrols and convoys by unidentified men firing rocket-propelled grenades." Nowhere in the remainder of the article is the total number killed or wounded mentioned, though the pressures faced by Washington are the focus of the story.

Such articles are misleading because they exclude important information to the point of being conspicuously incomplete. One of the reasons for concern in Washington is due to the ever-increasing domestic criticism directed towards it by its own soldiers and their families both in Iraq and at home. Much of the time, such criticism emanates from the families, friends, and comrades who have lost friends and loved ones in Washington's war.

More U.S. soldiers have been killed in "non-hostile" situations than in actual combat since May 1st. This is significant because it is many of these individuals' friends and families -- those not killed in combat -- who are now critical of the Bush administration. So the tension now looming over the occupation of Iraq, whether one is in a firefight in Baghdad or waiting for one's son to return, is caused by the totality of all the dead and injured, not just those from "hostile fire."

In another, more glaring example, National Public Radio reported on July 20th about new casualties in Iraq and, in a logical manner, closed the report with a tally of the dead. The newsreader said, "That brings the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the war in Iraq to 150." So not only does NPR make the same distinction as their less palatable media brethren (because 233 U.S. soldiers have actually been killed), but they don't even inform the listener when giving updated casualty figures that their numbers don't include those killed in any other way except from "hostile fire" -- a clear breach of journalistic integrity.

However, unlike in the first case, this obviously incomplete and vaguely presented information is clearly fallacious. A listener who does not follow international events or politics that closely may have no idea what is really happening in Iraq. Following this NPR report, then, they may believe that only 150 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives while serving in Iraq, that only 150 families are now grieving for their fallen loved ones. They may even refer to such a "fact" in a conversation with a fellow citizen -- and once they have, the radiation of misinformation has begun.

Another half-truth being perpetuated by various news agencies is that more U.S. soldiers have died in the current war in Iraq than in the first. This is true for "hostile fire" deaths only but not for total deaths: as already mentioned, 233 have died so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom while 299 died in Operation Desert Storm. While many reporters do make this distinction, many don't. The most conspicuous example again took place on NPR on July 21st when Diane Rehm, host of the eponymously named talk show, said in a painstakingly clear and simple sentence that more U.S. soldiers have died this time around than in Desert Storm. And then she stopped speaking and the show went to a break. No qualifying statement, no explanation, no insidious distinctions, nothing. Maybe she was unaware of these facts, but a host of a popular, national talk show has no excuse for such ignorance. So, at the very least, she passed on false information to millions of listeners.

The importance of these partial truths and media spin are significant for two reasons: one apolitical, one political.

First and foremost, the obfuscation of U.S. casualties by very wide swaths of the media is a disservice to the U.S. armed forces, their families, and the American public. Whether or not one considers U.S. servicemen and women heroes without equal, respectable people just doing their jobs, or patriots who have been duped to serve the geopolitical interests of a fairly undemocratic bureaucracy called the U.S. government, shouldn't change the fact that all of their lives are of equal value.

How does the mother who lost her son to friendly fire or a truck accident feel as the media constantly chatters about "combat deaths" and about how "these deaths" are putting pressure on President Bush and Paul Bremer? Does she wonder if her son's death is putting pressure on anyone or has forced others to reconsider what's happening in Iraq? Does her son's life matter as much? Or is her son half way in between an Iraqi and an American killed by hostile fire on a scale of their worth?

And what about all the injured who go unmentioned? It's hard to imagine a soldier claiming that his life was not changed forever because of the war, but many have had their lives changed in the most horrible ways. These soldiers are now paraplegics and cripples, blind and deaf, or learning to live with artificial limbs. Are not these victims part of the "cost of war" as well?

Secondly, and finally, this deception is significant for the anti-war movement and, more broadly and accurately, the large and inherently diverse cross-ideological, international resistance to U.S. hegemonic bullying in the Middle East, if only because it seeks to lessen the perceived impact of the war -- and now occupation -- upon the feelings and beliefs of the American public and, to a much lesser degree, the international community. All individuals opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq should highlight this "oversight" on the part of the media so as to make others more aware of the actual impact of this poorly conceived, designed, and executed unnecessary war and occupation.

[Matthew Riemer has written for years about a myriad of topics, such as: philosophy, religion, psychology, culture, and politics. He studied Russian language and culture for five years and traveled in the former Soviet Union in 1990. In the midst of a larger autobiographical/cultural work, Matthew is the Director of Operations at He lives in the United States.]

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