On January 4th, the Pentagon “announced the identities” of six American soldiers who had died between December 28th and New Year’s Eve. It was just one of many such listings over these last years and, like similar announcements, this one had a just-the-facts quality to it — spare to the bone, barely more information than you would get from a POW: rank, age, place of birth, date of death, place of death, type of death, and the unit to which the dead soldier belonged.
These announcements, which blend seamlessly into one another, also blend the dead into a relatively uniform mass. You can, of course, learn nothing from such skeletal reports about the dreams of these young men (and sometimes women), their hopes or fears, their plans for the future or lack of them, their talents and skills, their problems, their stray thoughts or deepest convictions, their worlds, and those who cared about them.
So few paragraphs are almost bound to emphasize not the individuality of the dead, but their similarity in death. Five of these soldiers died due to roadside explosives (IEDs), one from small-arms fire. Two died in Baghdad; two in Baqubah; the embattled capital of Diyala Province, north of Baghdad, where civil war rages; one in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency; and one in Taji, also in the “Sunni Triangle.” None had a rank higher than sergeant. The oldest was only 22; the youngest, 20. Another thing five of the six had in common was not coming from a major American city.
In order of population:
Pvt. David E. Dietrich came from Marysville, Pennsylvania, (population, 2,428 in 2005), not far from Harrisburg.
Pfc. Alan R. Blohm came from Kenai, Alaska (population, 7,166 in 2003), 150 miles south of Anchorage.
Cpl. Jonathan E. Schiller came from Ottumwa, Iowa, (population 24,998 in 2000), best known as the home of Radar O’Reilly in the TV show M*A*S*H. It supposedly has “the highest unsolved murder rate (per capita) in the free world.”
Sgt. John M. Sullivan came from Hixson, Tennessee (population 37,507).
Spc. Luis G. Ayala came from South Gate, California (population of 103,547), part of Los Angeles and once the home of a huge General Motors plant.
Spc. Richard A. Smith came from Grand Prairie, Texas, population 145,600 in 2005. “Legend has it,” the Wikipedia tells us, “that the town was renamed after a famous female actor stepped off the train and exclaimed ‘My, what a grand prairie!'”
Some of them, in other words, grew up in places with vanishingly small populations but even those who didn’t came from places you’re likely to have heard of only if you grew up there yourself. As Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren put it, in examining the last thousand American deaths in Iraq for the New York Times: