May 20, 2010

Grim Milestones in War’s Headstones

How is it that The New York Times reported that that the toll of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan reached the “grim milestone” of 1,000 Tuesday, but my newspaper, The Chronicle, had not bothered to report the story?

This column began as an effort to redress what I considered to be an unconscionable omission. _Even before the Iraq War toll exceeded 1,000 deaths in September 2004, there was a media build-up to the milestone. The Chronicle brought together family members from Northern California whose loved ones were among the dead for front-page coverage.

Why not pay similar tribute to those fallen in Operation Enduring Freedom? Is the big difference that the casualty count can’t be used against President George W. Bush?

As it turns out, news outlets had good reason not to report the 1,000 dead that The New York Times reported. As of Wednesday morning, the Pentagon’s official count for U.S. troops deaths in the Afghanistan region was 982 – 768 killed in action and 214 non-hostile deaths (that is, from car accidents or illnesses). The official Operation Enduring Freedom count also adds 78 deaths, including eight combat fatalities, outside the region and two Defense Department civilian deaths.

The New York Times methodology expanded its own count to include as Afghanistan-area deaths other fatalities, including five non-hostile deaths at Guantanamo Bay. Hence the gray lady’s death-toll scoop.

On the upside, it’s great The New York Times has the resources to write compelling stories about the men and women who face danger and endure deprivation in order to keep America safe.

On the downside, because The Times has reported its ahead-of-the-curve statistic, when the official figures catch up, it will be old news.

Take the shrinking newspapers, the considerable amount of money it takes to cover a war, the no-controversy/no-coverage mentality in cable-newsdom, along with the fact that the death toll hurts President Obama, and the sacrifices made by U.S. troops in the Afghanistan War will not garner the coverage they deserve.

I almost miss the anti-war protests of the Bush years. I didn’t like the way activists used the bitter statistics to bolster their opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least the debate reminded Americans of the immense sacrifices made by the military.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, is an Iraq vet who believes the public is paying less attention to “the fact that we still have service members out there every single day who are dying.” As for “the numbers story,” he said, “it has a tendency to diminish the significance of each one of the lives and the families and the friends.”

Former Democratic Assemblyman and long-time Army Reserve Officer Tom Umberg sent me this note from Afghanistan: “I don’t know what number Cpl. Nicholas D. Paradarodriguez was when he was killed here on Sunday. I do know that for his family, his friends and those serving with him here in Afghanistan, he will be a constant and searing reminder of the sacrifice being made by a very few for the benefit of the millions of Americans who cannot name a person serving in uniform or feel any pinch on their pocketbook as a result of this war.”


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