Friday, August 26, 2005

The MSM is Bamboozling us on Iraq Casualties

This is a must read (HT: Jonathan Last) - a perspective from Last and an excerpt below:

On the off chance you missed it, my friend John Hinderaker posted a stunning and sobering essay earlier this week about the number and nature of the mounting American casualties in Iraq. He suggests that the prime reason public opinion has turned against the war in Iraq is that "news reporting on the war consists almost entirely of itemizing casualties" without bothering to explain where the soldier "were going, or why; what strategic objective they and their comrades were pursuing, and how successful they were in achieving it; or how many terrorists were also killed." Without this context, it is difficult, if not impossible, to form an accurate view of how well or badly things are going in Iraq.

Hinderaker argues, persuasively, that viewed through this lens, D-Day would have been seen merely as a loss of 2,500 allied soldiers, that the Battle of Normandy would have looked ghastly since it cost 54,000 Allied lives. He goes on:

How about the Battle of Midway, one of the most one-sided and strategically significant battles of world history? What if there had been no "triumphalism"--that dreaded word--in the American media's reporting on the battle, and Americans had learned only that 307 Americans died--never mind that the Japanese lost more than ten times that many--without being told the decisive significance of the engagement?

In an important sense, Hinderaker is right. Granted, the campaign in Iraq is harder to measure than the action in France or at Midway: The battles lines don't move, towns and islands aren't taken, the number of enemies killed is not easily ascertainable. Instead, the metrics for success in Iraq are so soft as to be nearly imperceptible: Schools built, rights enshrined, expectations of freedom raised. But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

(For instance, as Michael Barone recently reported, "support for terrorism in defense of Islam has 'declined dramatically'," in Muslim countries, according to a new Pew poll. That's a soft indicator, but an important one.)

Yet if the media are reporting on the most visible indicator they can get their hands on, one wishes they would at least have some perspective. Again, here's Hinderaker:

Here's some context: between 1983 and 1996, 18,006 American military personnel died accidentally in the service of their country. . . . That's right: all through the years when hardly anyone was paying attention, soldiers, sailors and Marines were dying in accidents, training and otherwise . . . Somehow, though, when there was no political hay to be made, I don't recall any great outcry, or gleeful reporting, or erecting of crosses in the President's home town.
As Hinderaker points out, this fact doesn't diminish the loss of combat deaths in Iraq. Rather, it highlights the every-day bravery of our armed forces, who put their lives at risk every time they get out of bed and go to work, even during peacetime.

It would be wrong to lay all the responsibility for the turning of public opinion at the feet of the media. But it is a reminder that casualty figures alone do not tell the whole story and, in general, the media could be doing a much better job.

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