Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Self-Indulgence as Strategy: American Lives, Iraqi Props

It’s one of those stories that took on a life of its own with outlandish, and ultimately offensive, disproportion. Two American soldiers go missing last Friday. The military in Iraq devotes the equivalent of 6 percent of American ground troops to the manhunt. The press in the United States devotes what looks like a fifth of every front page to trailing the story. (Television’s focus is by nature disproportionate, so no surprise that that the networks go Geraldo on the story, camouflaging the Natalee Holloway script for Iraq .) The rest of the world’s press is next-to-mute about it all, for a fair reason: it would be strange if non-American newspapers were to hydroplane over the fate of two missing Americans when thirty-five Iraqis are kidnapped every day, and fifty are killed every day. What exactly would be the justification of a paper in Canada or Laos or Argentina to highlight the fate of two Americans over that of countless Iraqis? But then why not pose the same question reagrding the American press?

Before we go on, the numbers are instructive. Nina Kamp and Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution have been keeping track of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s collaterals since the war began. In May 2003, their numbers show that two Iraqis went missing every day, and about eight were killed per day. A year later, kidnappings were up to 10 per day, civilian deaths up to 35 per day. In May 2005, kidnappings were up to 25 per day, and this May, up to 35. For precision’s sake, let’s also note that as of now Iraq body count has the death toll somewhere between 34,000 and 43,000, which means that the year-over-year kill ratio in Iraq during the American occupation has matched or perhaps slightly exceeded that of the Saddam years. U.S. military losses are up to 18,300 wounded and 2,507 killed, 2,733 including other coalition deaths.

So two Americans go missing. It’s not that the U.S. press shouldn’t react, or that the military shouldn’t have done all it could to recover the missing men. That only speaks honorably of both: caring is not a bad thing, even when it’s disproportionate. The question is, disproportionate at whose expense? Read the rest...