The number we’ve been printing on the cover or on the mail page most weeks since Nov. 10, 2004, has stopped getting bigger. Its growth has been slowing for years, and for many months now it has gone weeks at a time without rising, not even by a single digit. And now that U.S. military action in Iraq is officially over, with all combat troops out of the country as of Dec. 15, there are no more U.S. soldiers left to die in the streets of Baghdad or on the roads of Anbar Province. The final number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq War, over the span between March 19, 2003, and mid-December 2011, is 4,486.
Or at least that’s the number that I came up with. In the early years of the weekly count, I based the number on casualty statistics as reported on a special CNN web page (now found at cnn.com/SPECIALS/war.casualties) devoted to tracking U.S. and coalition deaths in the official military theaters of the so-called global war on terror. Later, after the CNN site went through a period of erratic reporting and then began presenting the data in a different way following a redesign (both of which led to a few brief periods of not running the number at all), I did my best to meticulously reconstruct as accurate a total as I could (I counted every last dead serviceman and -woman in the CNN database) and then updated it every week as carefully as possible from information taken from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (icasualties.org), a site run by a software engineer named Michael White. Still, in the end, my final total is two off from White’s—his is 4,484. The official Pentagon total of U.S military personnel who died in Iraq is 4,473. Similar but slightly different figures are bandied about by other sources, based on who’s counting and how and whom they count.
As much as I find myself mortified as a journalist that my count may be off, the exact number matters less, in a way, than the toll it represents. Because then President George W. Bush insisted that the United States and its grudging coalition partners invade Iraq for reasons that, in hindsight at least, never rose above specious, more than 4,000 men and women died, leaving behind dozens—hundreds—who grieved personally over each. Because our elected representatives let the Bush administration get away with this farcical foreign-policy adventure, more than 4,000 lives ended. Because we let our government do this, the many lessons of the Vietnam War notwithstanding, more than 4,000 futures never came to pass. These soldiers all died for their country and in its name, and that will always count to anyone who deserves what citizenship in this country entails. But do most of us civilians have any feeling for the weight of that number?
I confess that I haven’t always felt it, even as I tallied the rise in the number of deaths in Iraq, then Iraq and Afghanistan separately, and printed them in the paper every week. Some weeks, sitting at a computer screen and doing the weekly math in the midst of a busy deadline rush, I could have been compiling baseball box scores. Even though I insisted that we always run the number if at all possible, and that we would run it “as long as it keeps climbing,” as I wrote in June 2011, some weeks it was just a number to me. I saw the mini-portraits on the CNN site each week. I read the names and the hometowns as I scanned the lists. I knew they were American soldiers who had been killed—that was the point—but the steady stream of them tended to blur them as individuals. A big jump in the number—a dozen deaths to a tally in just seven days—stood out, obviously. In August, the crash of a loaded Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan made that number jump by more than 40 dead in a single week, but even as I winced, it was in many ways just a big number, a formidable statistic as much as a human tragedy.
This is an especially sobering realization for me because City Paper started running Murder Ink in part to combat the yearly toll of Baltimore homicides being rendered as a mere number, 300-plus in the worst years. We wanted to put names to the numbers at least, to make sure it was understood that each of those hundreds of victims was a person, not simply a statistic. But we don’t have the resources to report on every Baltimore homicide, much less every death in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will have to do to note that with the death of U.S. Army Spc. David Hickman, killed by a roadside bomb while patrolling Baghdad on Nov. 14, 2011, that number has ceased to grow. (I will not be the only one to note that Hickman was ultimately, to paraphrase U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s famous Vietnam-era testimony before Congress, the last man asked to die for the mistake that was the Iraq War.)
But while Hickman’s death marks the end of counting—and printing—the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq, that number doesn’t represent the full cost of more than eight years of warfare. In addition to the soldiers killed, more than 30,000 U.S. personnel were wounded, many grievously, and many will suffer the effects for the rest of their lives. Many wounded will eventually die from complications from their injuries, adding to the toll. And in addition to physical effects, the psychological impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has yet to be sufficiently understood. A 2009 Stanford University study projected that 35 percent of Iraq War veterans will eventually seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can cause a variety of lingering problems, often devastating, for those who’ve served in a combat zone. (And that’s not accounting for those who might fail to seek treatment.) Add the cost of caring for and supporting Iraq veterans long-term to the trillions spent on the war itself, and we will all be paying the monetary cost for generations. In less tangible terms, the foreign policy outcomes brought on by Bush’s launch of the war and Barack Obama’s extension of it will likely cost future generations of Americans as well.
And of course, there are the costs that touch us even less directly. In addition to the Americans and other coalition soldiers killed, the war led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis as well as millions more displaced or otherwise negatively affected. Saddam Hussein is gone, and Iraqis once more control their own destiny, at least to a greater degree than they once did. But ultimately they will have to answer whether it was all worth it.
The Iraq War is over, but the even longer, if more slow-burning, war in Afghanistan continues. For the time being, the number of Americans dead—like all the other costs associated with it—will continue to rise. And so will the number we print, found this week on page 3.