Missing the Forest for the Trees

Glenn Reynolds links to several commentators who are outraged that the media isn’t making a big deal of the fact that the past two months have seen a drop in U.S. casualties in Iraq. Among those linked is Dean Barnett, who complains:

YOU’D THINK THIS would be a big story. After all, the mainstream media makes such a show of “supporting the troops” at every turn, you’d think it would rush to report the amazing story of our soldiers accomplishing what many observers declared “impossible” and “unwinnable” not so long ago.

This type of observation completely misses the point. A two-month in a row drop in U.S. casualties is nothing new. it has happened several times over the course of the war and occupation. Two-month in a row drops in Iraqi deaths have also occurred several times. A steady drop in deaths over the course of six months might be news, but over two months it’s just a statistical blip.

Furthermore, the ostensible purpose of U.S. forces in Iraq is to provide enough security to facilitate the democratic political unification of Iraq and to transition security operations to the Iraqi government. Progress on both political unification and security transitions have made barely any progress at all. Sunni militias may have taken our money and equipment to turn on al-Qaeda, but they still happily attack Shi’ites. Shi’ite militia members still dominate the “Iraqi” security forces. The Kurds are still barely acknowledging that the central government even exists.

Even if it’s true that the “Surge” is improving the security situation in Iraq–a proposition for which there is still insufficient evidence–it doesn’t appear to be doing anything at all to improve the political situation in Iraq.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s a more important point to be made: that even adjusted for seasonal variance there’s been a drop. But you’re right on the larger point. There’s an old proverb that covers it: don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

    In my view the even larger point is that the situation in Iraq won’t develop according to the needs of the 24 hour news cycle nor according to the demands of the American electorate. My conclusion from that back in 2003 was that it would be impossible to change a whole civilization on a schedule that would fit the U. S. domestic political requirements.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Don’t we usually have a drop around the time of Ramadan?

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    And an increase shortly after.

    Yes, that was my point,DC Loser. Even taking that into account the casualty rate has fallen. We should rejoice over the good news.

    But, as James points out, we shouldn’t read too much into it, either.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    But, as James points out, we shouldn’t read too much into it, either.

    As WHO points out? 😉

  5. Michael says:

    As WHO points out? 😉

    All articles on OTB will be automatically attributed to James by subsequent comments until corrected in the comments by the original author, geez didn’t you read the site policies?

  6. 186 says:

    The point is that if there was even 10% rise in violence or deaths the main stream media would be shouting the news from the rooftops let alone if it rose by 70%.

    News is News and the MSM won’t report the “Good News”

    The UN has even noticed the drop in violence.

    Medal of Honor winner Michael Murphy is a glaring example of this!

  7. Anon says:

    Reporting on Michael Murphy winning the MoH is an example of the MSM highlighting bad news or good news?

  8. Bob says:

    If the reverse were occurring and we saw a two month rise of 10 percent in casualties the MSM would loudly trumpet that as significant. And there has been Iraqi political reconciliation, just not the way we imagined. So the MSM is going to sit on its hands because this isn’t the narrative they expected and isn’t the narrative they wanted. If this continues this will become an interesting narrative in the 2008 elections.

  9. Paul says:

    Sure, both coalition and Iraqi deaths may be lower this month than some other months. But I don’t see that cheering me up if I am an American who was just told that my son was killed in Iraq or an Iraqi who continues to face realities I can barely imagine. Seems to me that people who casually call these reports “good news” are treading toward the kind of chicken-hawk aloofness that got us into this mess in the first place. I don’t mean that as a critique of anyone here, but maybe those of us in armchairs should think more about the real life implications here before saying anything in Iraq can be considered good news. A lot of people who don’t know it yet will have their lives shattered forever next week by events in Iraq. On October 24, 2057, old men in VA hospitals who haven’t known who they are since 2007 will be swallowing meds for dozens of crippling ailments, middle-age accountants will be in ugly divorces stemming from a messed up family live in which they lost a parent they don’t remember, and the US will have such enormous debts we will have much higher taxes and lesser services than we do today. Forgive me if I don’t see the good news in all that.

  10. Alex Knapp says:

    And there has been Iraqi political reconciliation, just not the way we imagined.

    I’m not sure that I consider the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad to be “political reconciliation.” Or did you have something else in mind?

  11. Michael says:

    News is News and the MSM won’t report the “Good News”

    Sure they will, but there is a difference between good news and not news. People not dying is not “good news”, it is the expected norm. The MSM isn’t reporting about how much of California is _not_ on fire, do you have a problem with that too?

    Now, if you want to argue that a continued stream of flag-draped coffins should be considered the norm and only changes to that are worth mentioning, go right ahead, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it in front of veterans.

  12. Mike says:

    at a cost of $8 billion a month, i will think this is significant when we bring 90% of our folks back – this won’t happen for a long, long time b/c REAL progress is not being made – the body count is just one aspect of success

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Sorry about that, Alex. Didn’t read the byline closely enough.

  14. anjin-san says:

    The casualties drop was a front page story in my local paper today. It seems that Bush supporters, without a single accomplishment to talk about, have nothing left to do but whine at high volumes…

  15. Charles Bird says:

    U.S. casualties aren’t necessarily a measure of progress in Iraq, but civilian casualties most definitely are. By excluding that metric, Alex, your post is misleading. The October numbers for civilian casualties are projected to be lower September’s already low numbers, barring some spectacular al Qaeda bombing. And political progress is being made, just not on the national stage.