Check out this number: 23,416.
That's how many US soldiers have been killed or wounded in the Iraq War, as of today.
Did you know the number was that high? I didn't. I had a general idea that just short of 3,000 troops had been killed -- Forbes puts the number of dead at 2,729 -- but I didn't have a handle on the wounded.
I'm pretty sure that a large percentage of the wounded have very serious injuries -- modern medicine is saving a lot of soldiers who would have died in earlier wars, even in Vietnam.
Outside the number of dead, US losses in Iraq aren't getting much newspaper coverage. I've seen a few features on brave soldiers learning to deal with their injuries, but I haven't seen any big picture stories detailing how many soldiers we're losing to life-derailing injuries.
Juan Cole points out today that if you want coverage of US casualties, you need to read local papers -- which, of course, tend to focus on individual stories. He goes on to say:
Usually the national cable networks spend hours and hours covering local murder mysteries and emergencies while ignoring vital national and international stories. In this case, they mainly cover Iraq by reporting what the Bush administration says about Iraq, but they almost never cover the local impact of the war or concentrate on the wounded veterans struggling to make their lives.I realize that the Defense Department is not making it easy to get this information -- remember all the flap about whether journalists could cover the bodies being shipped into to the Dover, Delaware, air force base -- but the news media could do a better job of covering this story. I'd really like to know how many of our troops are going to spend the rest of their lives struggling with a significant disability such as a brain injury.
Which brings us to a detailed report in the Columbia Journalism Review by Eric Umansky on coverage of torture by US soldiers and other officials. Umansky says good reporters like Carlotta Gall of The New York Times were digging out the torture story as early as 2002 during the Afghanistan war -- Gall discovered that some of our prisoners were killed in custody.
But as the CJR reports, The Times dithered over running Gall's story on this matter, only running it eventually, on an inside page, because one editor fought for it and Gall provided very detailed background reporting. The CJR story contrasts The Times' handling of the torture story to the way it covered weapons of mass destruction:
"Compare Judy Miller's WMD stories to Carlotta's story," says [then Times editor for investigative reporting Doug] Frantz. "On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta's story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations."Umansky's article points out the complexities of covering a subject like torture and the difficulty that editors have in deciding whether something is really news. It's not a blame story, but it does point out the weakness in the coverage. Here's one observation he makes that really caught my eye:
Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline "U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall's digging.)
There is a final factor that has shaped torture coverage, one that is hard to capture. In most big scandals, such as Watergate, the core question is whether the allegations of illegal behavior are true. Here, the ultimate issue isn't whether the allegations are true, but whether they're significant, whether they should really be considered a scandal.And he does make clear that part of the problem is that the Bush administration and its tame Congress have made it difficult for journalists to report on this issue:
As a result of the administration's stonewalling, the abuse story has been deprived of the oxygen it needs to move forward and stay in the headlines. There are still occasional revelations, but without the typical next steps -- congressional hearings, investigations, resignations -- the scoops themselves start to lose their pop and the story grows cold.The result of this is that we the people get the wrong idea -- which is perhaps one reason that the detainee torture bill slid through Congress so easily. Umansky writes:
It is impossible to quantify the effect of congressional inaction and the administration's efforts to quash details about abusive interrogation tactics. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did ask a question in a poll that might give a glimpse. In October 2005 -- eighteen months after the disclosures of memos redefining torture, and after the appearance of official reports concluding that much of the abuse photographed at Abu Ghraib had indeed been based on tactics approved elsewhere in the system -- respondents were asked what they thought caused the "cases of prisoner mistreatment in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay." About a third said it was "mostly the result of official policies." Nearly half said it was "mostly the result of misconduct" by individuals.There's a saying from the 60s: "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers." Maybe it should be updated to "If they can get you to believe lies, they don't have to worry about your actions."
We have never needed good journalism more than we need it today. Blogs are valuable -- I've just pointed you to some information that you won't find in today's paper -- but what we most desperately need are reporters with the support and resources to find the stories and media of all kinds with the will and clout to publish them even in the face of government disapproval.
Unless we know what's really going on, how can we rein in the abuse being done in our name?