The Obama administration is on pace to have more American soldiers killed in casualties related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the George W. Bush administration did in its first term.
Already, hundreds more American troops have been killed in Afghanistan during the less than three years of the Obama administration than during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration. According to the iCasualties.org Web site, whose count more or less tracks that of other sites devoted to these statistics, 630 American soldiers died in the Afghanistan operation in the years 2001 through 2008, when Mr. Bush was president, while 1097 American soldiers have died in the years 2009, 2010, and 2011. Even if you allocate the 30 or so American soldiers killed in January 2009 entirely to Mr. Bush, who was president until the January 20 inauguration, it is quite a record.
Include Iraq, and the comparison tells a similar story: about 1,300 Americans killed in operations related to Iraq and Afghanistan combined during the first two and a half or so years we've had of the Obama administration, versus less than 600 American casualties in the first full three years of the George W. Bush administration.
It all raises at least two related questions. First, where are the antiwar protests? And second, where is the press?
In a phone interview, the national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, which organized some of the largest antiwar protests during the Bush administration, Michael McPhearson, said part of the explanation is political partisanship. A lot of the antiwar protesters, he said, were Democrats. "Once Obama got into office, they kind of demobilized themselves," he said.
"Because he's a Democrat, they don't want to oppose him in the same way as they opposed Bush," said Mr. McPhearson, who is also a former executive director of Veterans for Peace, and who said he voted for President Obama in 2008. "The politics of it allows him more breathing room when it comes to the wars."
Mr. McPhearson says antiwar protests of the sort that drew hundreds of thousands of people during the George W. Bush administration now draw 20,000 at best. He said his group's strategy now is to emphasize the cost of the wars and the Pentagon amid Washington's focus on trimming the deficit.
As for the press, a New York Times article on the helicopter downed over the weekend in Afghanistan included the sentence, "Although the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has steadily risen in the past year, with a 15 percent increase in the first half of 2011 over the same period last year, NATO deaths had been declining — decreasing nearly 20 percent in the first six months of 2011 compared with 2010." Why compare it to 2010? Why not to 2009, or to 2008? A Chicago Tribune news article, by contrast, declared that the helicopter downing "comes at a time of growing unease about the increasingly unpopular and costly war."
By the standards of American history, the deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are small, a mere fraction of those suffered in World War II or the Civil War or even Vietnam or Korea. And there are measures of success or failure in war other than American casualties. It doesn't only matter how many Americans die; it also matters how many enemy soldiers die, and whether America is achieving its war aims.
The approaching tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, is a sober time to weigh these issues for those of us New Yorkers and other Americans who supported the wars in part out of hope that they would decrease the chances of major terrorist attacks here at home. Mr. Obama can make the case here, as he does with the economy, that he is merely cleaning up and winding down the bad situation he was left by his predecessor. With the war as with the economy though, eventually even Mr. Obama will have to take ownership, or have it assigned to him by the voters.