When I saw the headline over a brief editorial in Friday's Wall Street Journal -- "12,000 Heroes" -- I thought the headline referred to Americans wounded in Iraq: Finally, the major media were beginning to pay attention to a more complete picture of the carnage in Iraq. I was wrong. So was the Journal's headline, which was actually referring to Iraqi civilians killed in the last 18 months. The Journal was calling the dead "heroes" because it was buying into Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr's claim that those civilians were killed exclusively by insurgents. Strange. On Sept. 24, Knight Ridder Newspapers reported that "operations by U.S. and multinational forces and Iraqi police are killing twice as many Iraqis -- most of them civilians -- as attacks by insurgents, according to statistics compiled by the Iraqi Health Ministry." Health and Interior must have different priorities.
Here's a clue as to why. The health ministry's numbers are culled from hospitals in 15 provinces. Its leadership is neither high-profile nor political (yet). Interior's Bayan Jabr is a Shiite activist who joined the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iran during the Saddam years, then headed the council's office in Syria. The council's military branch is the Badr militia, which, as Knight Ridder reported last week, "has gained enormous power since Iraq's January elections and now is accused of conducting a terror campaign against Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority that includes kidnappings, threats and murders." The Badr militia is devoted to the destruction of Sunnis with the same blind fanaticism that Hamas is devoted to the destruction of Israel. Badr is supplied and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which also supplies and trains Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia also big on destroying Israel and classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
Leave it to what goes for American foresight in Iraq to tap Jabr as a minister despite his history of anti-Sunni militancy. Jabr may be playing an even more divisive, if not outright violent, role now as one of Badr's most powerful politicos in Iraq. Of course he'll blame every death on the insurgency. To the Journal's editorial board though, Bayan Jabr playing advocate for civilian deaths is an example of "moral clarity" superior to "some of our own politicians."
Civilians are always any war's cruelest toll. But to call them heroes is crueler still. It assumes that they would have willingly accepted their own sacrifice in a cause they believe in (tell that to a dead five year old's mother), when chances are that, whoever was doing the killing, they couldn't care less about greater causes, let alone America's grab-bag of pseudo-causes since the war began in 2003. They're victims, pointless, wasted victims whose numbers, wherever they are, have long ago reached massacre proportions. The one valid cause to have ended Saddam's reign -- to end his massacres of Iraqis -- is no longer valid.
The figure most often reported this side of insanity is the death toll among American soldiers. That one is grimly accurate. It just hit 1,700. At this rate of two deaths per day, it will reach 2,000 just before Thanksgiving. No mystery what many families will not give thanks for come November 24. Those lost lives, too, are a waste. Domestic news media rarely report the death toll among coalition forces, which includes 185 soldiers, 89 of them British. Or the death toll in Afghanistan, which hit 190 American fatalities last week, 36 of them this year -- a death rate double that of 2002 and 2003. And still President Bush's ministry of information pretends we're losing neither the original war on terror in Afghanistan nor its Gong Show spin-off in Iraq. It takes a village idiot.
What about the other 12,000, the ones I mistook the Journal's headline reference for? Through the end of May, the Department of Defense has tallied up 12,348 American wounded there, a staggering number. "At least as many U.S. soldiers have been injured in combat in this war as in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or the first five years of the Vietnam conflict, from 1961 through 1965," Atul Gawade wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine in December. Soldiers are surviving injuries in greater proportions -- 90 percent in this war compared to 70 percent in World War II and 76 percent in Vietnam. But surviving as what if so many of them are shredded remains of their former selves? Even the number of wounded understates the real toll. Of the 1 million troops who've served in Afghanistan and Iraq so far, a third will need mental health treatment if Vietnam's rates are any indication.
There's heroism in there somewhere, but only in spite of America's folly in Iraq. Trivial compensation for lives lost to a wasteland.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 News-Journal Corporation