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Understanding the death toll in Iraq

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, October 28, 2005

Americans have a morbid fascination of noting milestones each time an increment of measurement, regardless of size, is reached. As the year 2000 approached, some fought off computer meltdowns while others prepared for the second coming.

This week was no exception in milestone calculations when the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq surpassed 2,000 while the number of injured continued to climb beyond 17,000.

Anyone attending the next Notre Dame football game can easily visualize how much carnage those numbers represent. The American death toll of more than 2,000 in Iraq is the equivalent of five Notre Dame bands. Focus on the band’s presence in the stadium corner and then imagine seating four more bands in the sections above.

The number of wounded American soldiers represents one-fifth of a capacity crowd at Notre Dame Stadium. To visualize the injured Americans recovering from attacks, simply look at the Notre Dame student section extending from midfield to the corner of the end zone. Extend that seating arrangement to the stadium tunnel, but be prepared to add two rows of seating per week to keep pace with mounting causalities.

An even more astounding visualization of the horrors of war is the image of Iraqi deaths since the invasion in 2003. With estimates of civilian deaths nearing 110,000 in Iraq, imagine Notre Dame stadium bulging in attendance for the University of Southern California game. Now add a second upper seating bowl equal to the stadium expansion of several years ago. The total of those within this expanded stadium represents lives no longer walking this earth.

Our fascination with numbers does not necessarily begin with increments of thousands, hundreds or even tens. In early October, this writer’s native state of Pennsylvania marked the second time in two months that it lost five National Guard soldiers in a single attack in Iraq. That most recent milestone happened to coincide with another, namely that Pennsylvania also surpassed a total of 100 deaths.

According to military officials, the five were killed near Ramadi while on a routine patrol providing security for the construction of a railroad bridge. An explosive device struck their Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which was then attacked by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, setting it ablaze. The description of the incident’s detailed, coordinated effort gives every indication that American troops will continue to suffer losses in the foreseeable future.

The latest deaths increased to 104 the number of soldiers with ties to Pennsylvania who have died in support of the U.S. war in Iraq. More than 3,200 Pennsylvania guardsmen are deployed in Iraq, the highest per capita in the nation. Only California and Texas have suffered more casualties in the war in Iraq. All but five of the 104 Pennsylvania soldiers died after May 1, 2003, when President Bush announced the end of major combat in Iraq.

Our fascination with numbers does not necessarily limit itself to geographical regions. One of the first U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq, Jose Gutierrez, was an orphaned Guatemalan who at the time of his death was not even an American citizen. While some further set milestone measurements on ethnicity, others attempt to calculate the number of non-citizens currently in the active Armed Forces.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, while Latinos are nearly 10 percent of actively enlisted forces, they are over-represented in the most dangerous assignments – infantry, gun crews and seamanship – and make up more than 17 percent of the front line forces. As of August, Defense Department statistics show a casualty rate of more than 13 percent for people of Hispanic background serving in Iraq. Ironically, more than 50 percent of the Hispanic population, nearly 18 million, live in the two states (Texas and California) with the highest overall number of deaths in Iraq. These states are historically large recruitment centers for the Armed Forces.

Hispanics have been attracted in part to military service in response to a July 2002 executive order signed by President Bush. It expedites naturalization for aliens and non-citizen nationals who serve in active-duty status during the administration’s “war on terrorism.” Rather than waiting for as much as four years, the order allows non-citizens to apply for citizenship immediately upon arrival at their first military base.

Defense numbers indicate that 35,000 non-citizens currently serve in the active Armed Forces, 15,000 of whom became eligible for expedited naturalization under the executive order. It is sobering to think that non-citizens in Iraq outnumber the total of all coalition forces other than Britain and represent about a quarter of the U.S. effort. Trying to visualize this distinction demands yet another upper expansion to the stadium.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.