What the US death toll in Iraq reveals

A new poll shows that 53 percent of Americans say the war wasn't worth it.

Sometime in the coming days, the United States military will probably report the 2,000th American military death of the Iraq war.

While in some ways an arbitrary milestone, the tragic figure only tells part of the story when it comes to the human costs and human successes - both foreign and local - of the war.

Perhaps the most striking statistic from this war, compared with any other conflict in US history, shows troops today have a much better chance of surviving if wounded. This is because of vast improvements in body armor and strides in battlefield medicine.

For instance, the ratio of deaths to serious injuries in Iraq is less than half what it was in World War II. As recently as Vietnam, 28 percent of Americans hurt in action died. In Iraq, the ratio is 11 percent. In all, about 15,000 Americans have been wounded in combat here, about half of them seriously enough to go home.

What may be most telling about the number of deaths is whether it creates a major shift in American public opinion, which has largely been tolerant of the loss of life in Iraq.

"By any historical standards the casualties are incredibly low,'' says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former US Defense Department official. "But America has changed. On the one hand, Americans don't have the stakes where their sons and daughters were subject to the draft. On the other, we have a media and a people that have been educated to believe in a precision, almost bloodless form of war."

This milestone will be visited by both antiwar protesters and war supporters who say that the dead should be honored by finishing the job. Who wins that debate will hinge on how Americans answer the following questions: Has the cost been worth it? Is America willing to pay much more?

Mr. Cordesman says at this time, the next few months will determine whether the military deaths will eventually become a rallying point for those who want America out of Iraq.

"There's nothing magic about any given number of casualties, but what virtually any serious study of this shows is that Americans will tolerate casualties if they believe the conflict is needed, well managed, and there's a real purpose in continuing it,'' he says. "It seems obvious from public opinion polls that fewer and fewer Americans believe that."

Improved rates of survival also mean that there are more amputees coming home. On a US base in Baquba, Iraq, recently, an Iraqi interpreter said he really missed his best friend in the army, a young woman lieutenant he served with. Asked what happened to her, he pulls from his wallet a snapshot of a young woman posing defiantly with the prosthesis for her right arm.

While hard data aren't available on the number of amputees, the issue has led to a boom in research and development of advanced prosthetics in the US, most funded by the US Army. Amputees are now being fitted with artificial legs, that have computer chips that ease movement and develop a sort of artificial "muscle-memory."

Also frequently neglected is looking at the war's cost to Iraqis. Roughly 25,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the course of the war, and this year has been particularly deadly for Iraqi police and soldiers, who patrol the streets of Iraq without the armored vehicles, medical expertise, and heavy weaponry that US forces rely on.

Since the war began, about 3,300 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed, 2,100 this year alone, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies released this week. The Iraqi Interior Ministry refuses to say how many police have been wounded.

Three police interviewed in Baghdad Tuesday have lost 12 coworkers since the war began. "Of course I'm afraid - working as a policeman makes me an enormous target,'' says Amar Hasan, young cop guarding an interior ministry building. "But I'm not going to quit. We have to do this."

Cordesman's data show that the US death rate is very low for a war of this size. But US support continues to slide. A Harris Interactive poll published in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal found that 53 percent of Americans now think invading Iraq was the "wrong thing to do." That's the first time that number has risen above 50 percent in the poll. The same poll in September found 49 percent of Americans opposed.

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