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Body Count

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:

"The service members who died during this latest period fit an unchanging profile. They were mostly white men from rural areas, soldiers so young they still held fresh memories of high school football heroics and teenage escapades. Many men and women were in Iraq for the second or third time. Some were going on their fourth, fifth or sixth deployment."

All you have to do is look through the most recent of these Pentagon announcements of deaths in Iraq to find more evidence of that parade of places you just haven't heard of: Vassar, Michigan (pop. 2,823), Paris, Tennessee (pop. 9,763), Wasilla, Alaska (pop. 5,470), Tamarac, Florida (pop. 55,588), New Castle, Delaware (pop. 4,836), and Vancouver, Washington (pop. 157,493).

This isn't new. You could say, in fact, that here, as elsewhere in the American experience of war in Iraq, the Vietnam analogy seems to apply, at least to a degree. Historian Chris Appy in his book Working-Class War comments:

"Rural and small-town America may have lost more men in Vietnam, proportionately, than did even central cities and working-class suburbs… It is not hard to find small towns that lost more than one man in Vietnam. Empire, Alabama, for example, had four men out of a population of only 400 die in Vietnam -- four men from a town in which only a few dozen boys came of draft age during the entire war."

But in the present all-volunteer military at the height of an increasingly catastrophic, ever less popular war, this trend toward sacrificing the overlooked young from overlooked American communities seems especially pronounced.

What does this mean, practically speaking? Assistant Professor James Moody of Duke University recently estimated that somewhere between 4.3 and 6.5 million Americans "may know people who were killed or wounded in the recent fighting" in Iraq and Afghanistan. That may sound like a lot of people, but as Globalsecurity.org's director John Pike put the matter, "The probability of knowing a casualty was about 100 times higher in [World War II] than today." Similar figures for the Vietnam years would have been significantly higher than the present ones as well (and, of course, the omnipresence of the draft gave so many more Americans a sense of being at war). As University of Maryland sociology professor David Segal put the matter, in considering Moody's research, "The bottom line is that the American military is at war, but American society is not. Even in Vietnam, everybody knew somebody who was killed or wounded."

When, last night, the President announced that he had already "committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq," when he "surges" them into Baghdad and al-Anbar Province, he is surging from Kenai, from Hixon, from Wasilla, from South Gate. And he is ensuring a spate of future Pentagon "announcements" that will again take us to what's left of the hamlets, villages, small towns, and out of the way smaller cities of this country, the places Americans increasingly don't notice.

When the President talks to us, as he did last night, about "a year ahead that will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve," this is who he is mainly sacrificing. Today, in our civilized world, we are shocked when we read of the bloody rites, the human sacrifices, of the Aztecs whose priests ripped hearts, still beating, from human chests to appease their bloodthirsty gods. These were, of course, the hearts of captives. In all his fervor, George W. Bush looks ever more like an American high priest who, for his own bloody gods, is similarly ripping hearts from the chests of the living. Make no mistake, in his speech last night, he was offering up human sacrifices from the captive villages and towns of the United States on the altar of blind faith and pure, abysmal folly.

[This is Part 1 of a 3-part blog. Tomorrow: Word Count]

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