It turns out that the term "civil war" has a technical definition. Unsurprisingly, it involves the idea of armed struggle for political power within a nation or culture. But ordinarily a particular level of death is required before a conflict can properly be called a civil war: at least 100 deaths on each side and a total that reaches 1,000.
By this definition, of course, Iraq is in a state of civil war many times over. But a letter writer to my local newspaper recently scoffed at the paltry death toll of 50 or so Iraqis per day, pointing out that if the Iraqis and the American media need a refresher course in what a civil war is, they need only look to U.S. history: the three-day battle of Gettysburg claimed 51,112 casualties; Chickamauga, 34,624; Chancellorsville, 30,099. Now that’s what this writer calls a "real civil war."
Of course, his logic is perversely misguided by a bizarre notion of "civil war one-upmanship." Recently, however, radio-talk-show host Neal Boortz engaged in similar questionable reasoning, minimizing our current death toll in Iraq of around 50 service members per month by comparing it with the death toll in World War I, which, he says, ran around 8,000 per month.
Last Aug. 23, Rush Limbaugh did the same thing by comparing the 2,500 soldiers who had been killed in Iraq at that time with the 43,443 traffic fatalities that occurred in the United States in 2005. The latter figure, he seemed to be saying, certainly puts the first one into perspective. It’s disquieting to recall that comparisons similar to Limbaugh’s were made during the Vietnam War, as well.
There’s something about this cold calculation of death that puts me off. For one thing, the casual inexactness of these comparisons seems wrong. For his, Boortz uses a death toll of around 50 Americans per month. But as of this writing our country is just a few days short of 45 months of engagement in Iraq. The death toll as of Monday morning was 2,942 American airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines — women and men — which comes out to 65 deaths per month. But what’s an extra 15?
Furthermore, Monday’s newspaper reported that 54 American service members had been killed in Iraq during the first half of the month (by Dec. 15), producing a daily average that, if it doesn’t get worse, will result in the deaths of 112 Americans during December.
The figures used in Boortz’s and Limbaugh’s tendentious comparisons are inexact in another way, as well, since they ignore the many thousands of serious injuries sustained by our service members in Iraq, as well as the inestimable number of Iraqis killed and wounded. Then there are the other coalition forces that have suffered their own casualties. Also left out of these comparisons are the six or 12 or 20 immediate family members and friends, American and Iraqi, whose lives are deeply scarred by every death.
All of this adds up to a lot of suffering, and it’s misguided to ignore it or to minimize it by making comparisons with other death tolls at other times.
The capacity of American military service members to sacrifice for the defense of our country or for other good causes is enormous. But, as many writers have argued, Iraq was a bad cause from the beginning, misconceived and mishandled. At last, we’ve turned our attention to repairing this misadventure.
Unfortunately, President Bush is in a terrible political and military quandary and, with everything at stake, he is resistant to any course that can be characterized as defeat. Victory, however, is unlikely, no matter the course. Understandably, the president doesn’t know what to do. He needs time to think. Therefore, the announcement of policy changes in Iraq, originally promised for before Christmas, has been postponed until early next year, perhaps an additional 30 days.
Deliberation is nearly always a good thing, and more of it was called for before the war was started. But the current death rate for American service members is 3.6 killed per day. At that rate, another 30 days adds up to 108 more dead soldiers. For their families, not much is going to be merry this Christmas.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)