Numbers to Names to Stories

Numbers to Names to Stories

There are more than 40,000 American injury and fatality stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. Each deserves to be identified and told.


Literally a "digital" counterpart to her more famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin’s Women’s Table in New Haven, Connecticut, is a granite monument to the role of women at Yale University. When not serving as a late-night Slip ‘N Slide for drunk undergraduates, the monument in front of Sterling Memorial Library quietly pays tribute to the presence of women at Yale. Commissioned in 1989 and installed in 1993, the sculpture records, year-by-year, the quantity of women enrolled at the university since its founding in 1701.

From a hole in the center of a large ovoid slab, water bubbles up and spreads outward, eventually spilling over the sides. Also emanating from the center, and following the water’s path, is a series of etched numbers that records, year-by-year, the number of women enrolled at the school since its founding in 1701. There are no names–only numerals–and the first 172 entries, representing the years 1701-1872, are all the same: 0. At 1873, the first year female matriculates were recorded, the string of zeros ends with a small but significant tally of 13. (Technically, the School of Fine Arts opened its doors to women in 1869, but formal records of identities and numbers were not kept until four years later.) From there, the numbers spiral outward and upward before arriving at 5,055 for 1993, the last year memorialized.

Unlike the Vietnam Memorial, which stirs the soul with its voluminous and methodical listing of 58,195 names, the Women’s Table uses the anonymity of numbers to capture visitors’ emotions. At the center of the sculpture, the zeros dive down into darkness and oblivion, a literal representation of the nearly two-century-long null presence of women at the university. When taken together, though, Lin’s two monuments symbolize the complex and multifaceted way by which America must honor casualties from its current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his column on April 6 in The New York Times, Bob Herbert chastises the nation for virtually ignoring the ongoing sacrifices made by our troops in combat. "There is a strong tendency, in our collective national consciousness," he writes, "to give short shrift to the many thousands of Americans who are suffering grievously as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." And "short shrift" is perhaps an overstatement, especially in America’s urbanized, hyperintellectual redoubts such as Manhattan and Northwest Washington, where it’s entirely possible to go about one’s day and not even realize that young Americans are still fighting and dying in two wars on the other side of the world.

Herbert continues, "The wars have become like white noise in our culture. They hit the front pages from time to time, and there are evenings when some aspect of the wars are featured on the national news telecasts. But we have no real sense of the extraordinary sacrifices that have been made by the young men and women who are fighting these wars in our name." Casualty statistics, dutifully listed at media outlets like The Times and PBS’s NewsHour, trickle out a handful at a time, heartbreaking only to those who know and love the fallen. Like Lin’s line of zeros, the rate is steady, constant, ever-present–yet still distant and incomprehensible to most of us. They feel as cold and unknowable as those 172 years of all-male chauvinism at Yale. Tragic, yes–but still abstract. What can one make of Herbert’s assertion, then, that, "Nearly 1,000 service members have lost limbs as a result of the two wars, and nearly 200 have lost more than one limb."? Morbidly wounded eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds don’t typically attend Manhattan literary salons, and the image of 1,000 amputees–the equivalent of five, packed-to-the-gills R-160 New York City Subway cars, a sight easily visible on any weekday morning–is beyond my imagination.

So to his numbers, then, Herbert adds a name. Dennet Oregon, a soldier from the Chicago area, "lost both legs. Each was amputated just below the knee. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury, three fractured vertebrae and cuts to his face and head." Just as the shear volume of identity on the Vietnam Memorial is suffocating and heartbreaking, so too are the pain and suffering of Sgt. Oregon’s story. Herbert puts identity to an icy Department of Defense datum, injecting meaning into what too many of us see as a mere statistic. We need to associate numbers and names to our wars if we are to comprehend their meaning and show appropriate respect and gratitude to our troops. According to, there are more than 40,000 American injury and fatality stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. Each deserves to be recorded and tallied–but also identified and told.

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