Imagine a major mainstream media figure stating that the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq are not really a big deal. You would expect that pundits across the political spectrum would attack such a statement as an affront to the troops and a belittling of their sacrifices.
But you don't have to imagine; this scenario has already happened, with hardly a peep from other commentators. The journalist in question is Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume. On the October 13 broadcast of Special Report, the show he regularly hosts, Hume said of U.S deaths in Iraq, "by historic standards, these casualties are negligible."
What history is Hume referring to? It's true that U.S. deaths were substantially higher in World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam--major wars fought either against major world powers or against well-armed states backed by superpowers. Deaths were also much higher in the U.S. Civil War.
But when compared to other conflicts in its category--wars and counterinsurgency operations against comparatively weak, isolated nations and guerrilla movements--the death toll in Iraq is strikingly high. Of all the other U.S. military interventions over the past 30 years--which include Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the 1991 Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo and Afghanistan--none have come close to 1,000 U.S. deaths, let alone 2,000. By those "historical standards," the Iraq War has been remarkably deadly.
Hume's October 13 comment wasn't the first time he has tried to downplay the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq. On August 4, following a day in which 18 U.S. troops were killed in combat, Hume stated that "of course, by historical standards, these casualties, even after this attack this week, are minor, I mean, militarily minor." Hume did add the deaths were "a terrible tragedy for everybody involved, and the families and all, but they're not large casualties by historical military standards." Weeks later, Hume repeated that position (8/24/05): "By historic standards, military standards, these casualties in Iraq are quite low."
When the U.S. military death toll passed the 1,000 mark last year, Hume posed this question to retired Army Gen. Robert Scales (9/7/04): "The question is, how important a milestone is this? Is it militarily significant or psychologically important, both, neither?" Scales gave an answer that sounded very much like Hume's opinion: "It's very low casualties when you compare it to something like Vietnam. I mean, at the height of the Tet Offensive, which lasted, what, nine days, there were well over 1,000 American dead. So in terms of the rate, obviously it's much lower."
On August 26, 2003, Hume conjured up a bizarre mathematical formula to show that U.S. casualties were not a big deal: "Two hundred seventy-seven U.S. soldiers have now died in Iraq, which means that statistically speaking U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California, which is roughly the same geographical size. The most recent statistics indicate California has more than 2,300 homicides each year, which means about 6.6 murders each day. Meanwhile, U.S. troops have been in Iraq for 160 days, which means they're incurring about 1.7 deaths, including illness and accidents each day."
Hume's geographic comparison was meaningless, since the total population of California is far greater than the number of U.S. troops in Iraq--approximately 240 times greater. If Californians were being killed at the same rate that Hume cited for U.S. soldiers, there would be more than 400 murders per day, not six. When Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz (9/8/03) asked Hume about that, Hume said: "Admittedly it was a crude comparison, but it was illustrative of something."
Perhaps "crude" is the best way to describe Hume's attitude towards U.S. fatalities in Iraq.
Follow Peter Hart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterfhart