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The Forgotten American Dead | The Nation

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The Forgotten American Dead

In an important study that has gotten too little attention, a demographer, William O'Hare, and a journalist, Bill Bishop, working with the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute, which specializes in the overlooked rural areas of our country, have crunched the numbers on where the American dead of the Iraq and Afghan Wars come from. The answer is: disproportionately from rural America.

According to their study, the death rate "for rural soldiers (24 per million adults aged 18 to 59) is 60% higher than the death rate for those soldiers from cities and suburbs (15 deaths per million)." Of rural areas, Vermont has the highest rate of casualties, followed by Delaware, South Dakota, and Arizona. Only 8 of our states have higher urban than rural death rates.

Demographer O'Hare, who himself grew up in the small Michigan town of Flushing, sums the matter up this way:

"We know that soldiers from rural America are dying at higher rates than those from urban America, strikingly higher, 60% higher. We know, from other research, that the rural young join the military at higher rates than those from metropolitan areas. The dearth of opportunity in rural areas simply leaves more young people there with fewer alternatives to the military.

"Dozens of case studies show that opportunities are moving away, part of a long-term shift. The opportunity differential between rural and urban America is probably higher now than at any time in the past. Our study highlights the price some young folks and their families are paying for lack of opportunity in rural America."

Just over 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq. If the U.S. population is 300 million, then that's just 0.001% of it – and many of these come disproportionately from the most forgotten, least attended to parts of our country, places that often have lost their job bases. Given our all-volunteer military (so that not even the threat of a draft touches other young Americans), you could say that the President's war in Iraq -- and its harm -- has been disproportionately felt as well.

No wonder it's been easy for so many Americans to ignore such a catastrophic war until relatively recently. This might, in a sense, be considered part of a long-term White House strategy, finally faltering, of fighting two significant wars abroad while demobilizing the population at home. When, for instance, soon after the 9/11 attacks the President urged Americans to go to Disney World or, in December 2006, to go "shopping more" to help the economy, he meant it. We were to continue with our normal lives, untouched by his war.

In an interview this week, the Newshour's Jim Lehrer asked George W. Bush: "Why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something?"

And here was the President's pathetic but revealing answer:

"Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night."

In other words, our President wants -- has always wanted -- most of us to do nothing whatsoever.

To put all of this in some kind of crude context, consider the Iraqi side of this horrific equation. Just recently, the United Nations announced that in 2006, approximately 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, an obvious undercount as Jon Wiener pointed out at this blog.

Nonetheless, if the Iraqi population is about 27 million, then even that one-year undercount represents more than 0.1% of it. If, as such figures indicate, total Iraqi deaths since the invasion reached even the low end of the recent Lancet study's estimates -- several hundred thousand dead -- then we are talking about a country that has already lost at least 1% of its population as direct casualties of the President's invasion and occupation.

To take another crude measure of such things, sociologists sometimes claim that an average American knows approximately 200 people by their first names. So think of those 3,000 dead Americans, significantly from rural areas, as known on a first-name basis to 600,000 other people. On the same exceedingly crude basis, those 34,000 dead Iraqi civilians of 2006 alone would have been known by 6,800,000 other Iraqis. If you add in the Iraqi wounded and those who have fled the country or become internal refugees in the roiling civil war, there can essentially be no one in Iraq who has escaped intimate knowledge of the ravages of the American invasion and occupation.

In other words, you have a war launched by a country whose people can, in a personal sense, hardly know that it's going on and fought in a country that has been taken apart and ravaged more or less down to the last citizen.

Or think of it this way: The forgotten rural American dead are the Iraqis of the American War. I leave you to wonder about what the Iraqi dead are.

[Note: The Carsey Institute report by William O'Hare and Bill Bishop, "U.S. Rural Soldiers Account for a Disproportionately High Share of Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan," can be read by clicking here (pdf file).]

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