Thursday, June 19, 2003

 The danger of small numbers 

In case you haven't noticed (and if you only ever pay attention to the major news media, you probably wouldn't), over 50 American soldiers have died in Iraq since President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" on the aircraft carrier Lincoln just a few weeks ago. That seems like a pretty substantial amount, and yet it registers very low on the media Richter scale. You'd think that the story of brave American troops dying in Iraq would merit more than the scant coverage and attention it seems to get, but I guess it's outweighed by the steady drone of secondary news stories hyped up into capital letters and full-length cable news programs in order to fill time and sell copy.

It all seems like media conspiracy, but you have to remember that it really goes back to human nature. It's not so much that we as Americans don't care about our troops anymore (although there's a case to be made that they don't), but rather that we no longer perceive a threat where before we had. I'm in no way excusing our adventure into Iraq at the behest of the PNAC cabal -- far from it. Even before the war I had serious doubts about the urgency of the threat from Iraq as well as the extremely tenuous Al-Qaeda connection that the administration had attempted to portray. But when it comes to understanding the president's popularity (or at least the general acceptance of his policies), you don't really have to look much further than the issue of how humans perceive threats and respond to them.

Whether or not it was realistic or logical - and the evidence is now strongly suggesting that it was neither - Americans perceived a threat from Iraq. In most people's minds, the Iraqi military threatened America with weapons that could kill us in numbers and in a fashion akin to what we saw on 9/11. And with the blessing that comes from a populace desiring to be protected from what it thinks is imminent danger, this administration ordered our military into battle, destroying much of Iraq's physical and societal infrastructure in the process. And with a compliant media in tow, the administration was able to declare victory and allow the Iraqi occupation story to move onto the inside pages of the major newspapers and push it into the now-ignored crawl on the likes of CNN, MSNBC and Faux News.

But many of us who opposed this war understood that the real struggle wasn't going to be the open and direct military confrontation between the US and Iraq, but rather the low-intensity guerrilla war and aftermath that would complicate the US control of the region in the subsequent weeks, months, and probably years. The question now is, what will it take to raise the general awareness of the American people that their soldiers are still dying in Iraq? That they are dying now merely for the benefit of an increasingly disenchanted Iraqi population, and no longer for protecting us against weapons that either did not exist, or not in any amount that truly threatened us. How is it that a president who campaigned against nation-building and against overstretching our military now has engaged them in both endeavors, in striking and seemingly open-ended fashion, with no remaining clearly defined objective?

It will succeed as long as the death toll of American soldiers is on the order of 1 or 2 per day. That's acceptable to people, even if it means 30-50 a month, 500 a year. But it would be a very different story if it were 30-50 in one attack, followed by several quiet days, and then another large engagement killing say 10-15, followed by more quiet, and so on. People don't see the single digit death counts as threatening to themselves (and by extension, the Nation) - but when the death tolls enter the double digits in a single battle, then Americans begin to see the situation as more threatening. After all, if that many soldiers or civilians die at once, then Iraq as a whole will be seen as more dangerous, and the price being paid in blood will begin to seem excessive considering the lack of any WMD threat. But if they're only picking off one or two at a time, most Americans seem to consider that acceptable background noise, in defense of some vague concept of "freedom". The reasoning seems to be, "It's only one person - at that rate it will be a long time before I'll be affected, so I can ignore it and move on with my life."

Me, I find that a rather disquieting calculus, but I don't see any other reasonable explanation for the widespread American tolerance for the killing of their own soldiers in a cause that was falsely advertised by our own government. Our human nature has been shaped over thousands of generations to recognize chronic problems as secondary to acute ones*, and that's precisely the logic at work here. I personally wish it were not so, because I believe this whole war and occupation is the result of a disastrous political agenda that ultimately weakens this country and the good things it stands for. But I can't deny that such logic prevails.

*By the way, I highly recommend Why Things Bite Back, by Edward Tenner. Although the book is a bit repetitious, it makes an excellent point and offers great insights into the whole topic of the acute vs. the chronic, and of unintended consequences.

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