Tuesday, October 25, 2005

2,000 points of light

The news came across the wires at 12:07 p.m. West Coast time: The U.S. armed forces fatality count reached 2,000 today. Army Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., 34, of Killeen, Texas, died over the weekend in San Antonio, Texas. Alexander, assigned to the 1st Batallion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Ga., was wounded by a roadside bomb on Oct. 17 in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

The 2,000th-death event was expected for some time; newspapers and Web sites were for weeks preparing special sections to make note of that grim, presumably inevitable numerical signpost. Editors and reporters probably had the phrase "grim milestone" coded into macro keys on their computers; so many of them used those words for previous somber war-related anniversaries -- like when 100 troops died, and when 500 died, and when 1,000 died.

Today the chief spokesman for the American-led coalition, Army Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, asked reporters covering the conflict not to read too much into a single number, actually having the nerve to describe the number as an “artificial mark.”

“The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone," Boylan said presumably with a straight face, given the gravity of the circumstances. "It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives."

Boylan's half-right. It's an artificial mark not unlike the convenient numerical benchmarks the press relishes as a way to make their lives easier. Another one the press is fond of has happened with every administration of the past thirty years: the 100-day "report card" that's such a bane of our existence it begs the question of why we even bother to do it any more.

But in another way Boylan, like so many others seeking to legitimize an illegitimate conflict, misses the point. To call it artificial is to minimize the impact, individually and collectively, on the people involved. In our society we use numbers as an index to our joy and our pain, our triumphs and our sadness. That's how we keep score ... of everything that matters. There's nothing artificial about reaching the level of two thousand Americans killed in the prosecution of an unnecessary war.

“The 2,000th Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine that is killed in action is just as important as the first that died and will be just as important as the last to die in this war against terrorism and to ensure freedom for a people who have not known freedom in over two generations,” Boylan e-wrote to reporters with an eloquence that would be profound if it weren't so self-serving.

The statement overlooks the fact that if the first soldier to die wasn't sent to die -- wasn't dispatched to perform a politician's errand -- the 1,999 to follow wouldn't have had to die either. Those deaths, either the first or the most recent, would be somewhat easier to take if the mission that Boylan parrots -- "to ensure freedom for a people who have not known freedom in over two generations" -- was the real reason those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are over there in the first place.

And it's not. And the continuing deception practiced by the Bush administration -- its very own "specific agenda," pursued for the administration's own "ulterior motive" -- only makes our great national agony that much worse.
Photo credit: Department of Defense

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