We are fast, too fast, coming up on the 3,000th American combat death in Iraq. Or maybe not. The government has had a considerate policy of keeping the bad news away from us, so it’s possible that number 3,000 will come and go as we move on to 4,000–and we will hardly be aware of it.
This would be in line with President George Bush’s kind-hearted policy of not allowing photographs of the coffins containing the remains of those who gave their lives for the rest of us. It’s always better not to know, isn’t it?
The famous Baker-Hamilton Commission even made note of how the government is not inclined to pass along the bad news: “There is significant under-reporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. The murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt US personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were ninety-three attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.”
If news should seep out that the 3,000th person has died, the government may still be able to find a way to prevent people from making a big to-do about it. For example, what if three of our people riding in a Humvee were to be killed by an improvised explosive device at the same time? Who would be number 3,000?
Knowing how the Pentagon works, officials might say that if number 3,000 cannot be determined, there is no 3,000th death. It didn’t happen and, as they like to say, instead of looking backward, let’s move on.
They might also avoid calling attention to the 3,000th death if they do not like the way that person met his or her end end. Something, for example, like the case of Pat Tillman, the professional football player who, after 9/11, signed up with the Army, became a Ranger and lost his life in Afghanistan. At first it was reported that he died fighting the Taliban, then there was a silence and, after pesky people demanded some answers, we learned that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, which does not make him less of a hero but which makes him less useful politically.
There are so many ways for number 3,000 to meet his or her death. He or she could be detached to teach Iraqi police and be killed by a perfidious student. There is also death by sniper, there is charging the enemy, death by mortar, death by accidentally being squashed by a tank, there is death by trying to save a buddy’s life, there is death by a bullet fired by a fellow soldier gone crazy from PTSD.
There are many ways to die in Iraq, and there are no good ones.