WE CAN’T GLAZE OVER THESE WAR NUMBERS

What’s in a number? Is there a heart, a soul, a toothy smile? Is there a childhood, a first kiss, a funny story about a wedding?

What’s in a number? Recently, a study was released estimating that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a direct or indirect result of the war. That’s a huge number. It represents 2.5% of Iraq’s entire population. If that percentage were applied to our country, it would be 7.5 million people. Dead.

That’s a staggering number. If an illness did that, it would be called a plague. If an earthquake did that, it would be called catastrophic.

But when a war does it? It’s called “questionable.” The quick response by our administration was to belittle the number, question its methods – because in this particular war, we have gone from trying to topple something to trying to save something. Death only suggests we’re failing.

So unlike in, say, World War II, when killing a large number of Nazis was hailed as good news, today, a high death toll in Iraq reflects badly on our stated purpose – to democratize the country – so our best interests are in keeping the numbers low.

Or at least vague. Have you ever wondered why we rarely hear about how many Iraqis have died in this war? Part of it, sure, is because there’s little structure in place to keep reliable records. But the war is 3 years old and counting. We get reports on every car bomb, every model of every helicopter or transport that is destroyed.

But getting a body count is like stealing a hidden playbook. A number nobody really knows

“I don’t consider it a credible report,” President George W. Bush said of this latest study when asked by the media at a White House news conference. “Neither does General Casey”- top U.S. commander in Iraq -“and neither do Iraqi officials.”

He is right. They don’t consider it credible. And with good reason. To accept it would suggest things are even worse than they seem.

But Bush did not offer his own number. The last time he gave an estimate was 10 months ago, when he said he thought 30,000 Iraqis had been killed. Thirty thousand versus 655,000?

Someone is getting it wrong.

Now, critics may be justified in attacking the study’s methodology; it was published in a British medical journal and conducted by researchers – American and Iraqi – interviewing households rather than taking a body count.

But this method has been used before in other countries. It’s not radical. And if its results are inexact, can they really be that far off? Can one group really conclude 655,000 people died and another group – the government – claim it is less than one-tenth of that?

Let’s split the difference. The midway point between the Bush administration’s estimates and this research would be about 300,000. That’s still a pretty chilling number, isn’t it?

Isn’t it? The 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war

I wonder. I think we have gotten so inured to numbers that we simply gloss over them. We hear about a movie making $40 million, or radio hosts who reach 10 million listeners, or that the U.S. population soon will exceed 300 million people. At what point does it stop being zeros?

I’ll tell you at what point. When we put faces and names to the numbers. The last time we really did this was Sept. 11, 2001. We lost just fewer than 3,000 people in that tragedy. Almost all of their identities were printed in newspapers, read at memorials, honored at ceremonies, televised during interviews with loved ones.

And, consequently, we were spurred to action. We took the measure of what it meant to lose – really lose – 3,000 souls. And we had to do something.

Well, another number is upon us. Before long, in Iraq, the number of American soldiers killed will surpass the number killed in the 9/11 attacks. The avenging force will have lost more than the number we sought to avenge.

You wonder if that will spur anyone to action, to do anything more than shrug at the TV. Yes, many of the dead in Iraq were bad people, bent on killing our countrymen and theirs. But not all of them. Many were like you and I, just trying to survive in difficult times, people with names, faces, funny stories. Now they are statistics.

What’s in a number?

Only what you are willing to see in it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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