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Friday, November 14, 2003

Agenda? What Agenda?

Today, Reuters has a story which is simultaneously unremarkable, boring, and shocking. The Headline on this Reuters story on Yahoo reads, "US War Dead in Iraq Exceeds Early Vietnam Years". The lede:

The U.S. death toll in Iraq has surpassed the number of American soldiers killed during the first three years of the Vietnam War, the brutal Cold War conflict that cast a shadow over U.S. affairs for more than a generation.

Those of you who are conversant with current events and/or the history of Vietnam will not be too surprised---the US had comparatively few troops in Vietnam, as the next two paragraphs show.

Reuters analysis of Defense Department statistics showed on Thursday that the Vietnam War, which the Army says officially began on Dec. 11, 1961, produced a combined 392 fatal casualties from 1962 through 1964, when American troop levels in Indochina stood at just over 17,000.

By comparison, a roadside bomb attack that killed a soldier in Baghdad on Wednesday brought to 397 the tally of American dead in Iraq, where U.S. forces number about 130,000 troops -- the same number reached in Vietnam by October 1965.

So we've sustained as many casualties in about eight months as a force more than 7 times smaller did over 46 months (not three years, as the lead paragraph states). Actually, we're doing better now than we did then: the Vietnam fatalities in that period work out to 0.05% per month; whereas the Iraq fatalities are less than 0.04%/month. You know, if we're going to play with numbers that really aren't very meaningful.

But you can't compare apples and meteorites in this manner. The role of the troops in Vietnam in the first three years of the war was much more of an advisory and training one, rather than one of major combat, among many, many other differences. The article goes on:

The casualty count for Iraq apparently surpassed the Vietnam figure last Sunday, when a U.S. soldier killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack south of Baghdad became the conflict's 393rd American casualty since Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20.

I hate to make an argument on the basis that most people are stupid, because 1) I don't think it's true, and 2) most people don't care for arguments based on the stupidity of most people. However, I must point out that, even if a news article survives the inevitable editing (and this one is long), the thing that will stick with most people is the headline and the first few paragraphs. They may well not notice (or not even see, because of editing) the much lower troop strength in Vietnam, or if they do they may not stop to think about it.

I don't think this article will stir most Americans (at least, not in the way the author expects), but it may certainly resonate with Europeans, who, if the European press articles I've seen are any measure, receive very poor information about the war in Iraq. Your average European will probably find his "Quagmire!" conclusions bolstered by this misleading article.

To continue:

Larger still is the number of American casualties from the broader U.S. war on terrorism, which has produced 488 military deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Southwest Asia and other locations.

I'm assuming he means American military deaths.

The Bush administration has rejected comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, which traumatized Americans a generation ago with a sad procession of military body bags and television footage of grim wartime cruelty.

Ah, nothing like keeping your news and editorials separate. And this is nothing like that.

The article goes on to sketch the origins of the Vietnam War, with emphasis on the fuzziness of when the war "started". (They use the Army Center of Military History start date for their analysis.) It also has a short recounting of the escalation of the conflict, finally, in the sixteenth paragraph (out of 21), mentioning that the war did not really get going (that is, start to become the quagmire we've come to know so well) until after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1965.

Perhaps there is some legitimate journalistic, military, or historical reason for comparing fatality levels in two conflicts in two different time frames in very different countries fought forty years apart for different reasons and with different methods. But I do not see it. Why not compare, say, American War on Terror fatalities to American fatalities in the first two years of World War II (September 1, 1939 to September 1, 1941)?

Otherwise, one might have to conclude that Reuters published this article in order to mislead readers. Surely that can't be right.

I was going to point out that someone would eventually get around to using this as an anti-war argument, but then I realized that---Doh!---Murat, at Rantburg had already done just that thing (which is how I found the article). Thanks, Murat!