Where Do the American Dead Come From?

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Finally, the other day I did a piece, “Surging from Kenai, Bush’s Sacrificial Americans,” on the American rural and small town dead of the Iraq War. It lacked hard figures. Subsequently, I discovered that they existed, which is why I return to this important and undercovered subject again today. Tom]

The Forgotten American Dead
Rural America Pays the President’s Price in Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt

When we hear about the American dead in Iraq, we normally learn about the circumstances in which they died. Last Saturday, for instance, was, for American troops, the third bloodiest day since the Bush administration launched its invasion in March 2003 — 27 of them died. Twelve went down in a Blackhawk helicopter over Diyala Province, probably hit by a shoulder-fired missile. Five died under somewhat surprising and mysterious circumstances. They were attacked in a supposedly secure facility in the Shiite city of Karbala by gunmen who, despite their telltale beards, were dressed to imitate American soldiers and managed to drive through city checkpoints in exceedingly official-looking armored SUVs. They could, of course, have been members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, but were probably Sunni insurgents from a neighboring province. The rest of the Americans in that total died as a result of roadside bombs (IEDs) around Baghdad or fighting with Sunni insurgents, mainly in al-Anbar Province. The Pentagon announcements on which such news is based are usually terse in the extreme. The totals, 29 dead for the weekend (as well as hundreds of Iraqis), did, however, become major TV and front-page news around the country.

These deaths are presented another way in the little, black-edged boxes you see in many newspapers. (My hometown ledger, the New York Times, has one of these almost every day, placed wherever the humdrum bad news from Iraq happens to fall inside the paper and labeled, “Names of the Dead.”) These, too, are taken from the Pentagon death announcements, which offer the barest of bare bones about those who just died. But they do tell you something that should be better noted in this country.

Take the Pentagon announcements for Iraq “casualties” from January 11th through January 23 — 21 dead in all, 17 from the Army, 2 from the Marines, and 2 from the Navy (one in a “non-combat related incident” in Iraq, the other in Bahrain).

Then just check out their hometowns. Remove a few obvious large metropolitan areas, or parts thereof — Boston, El Paso, Jacksonville, Irving (home of the Dallas Cowboys), and Irvine (California) — and here’s the parade of names you’re left with:

Temecula (California), Henderson (Texas), San Marcos (Texas), Lawton (Michigan), Cambridge (Illinois), Casper (Wyoming), Richwood (Texas), Prairie Village (Kansas), Ewing (Kentucky), Wisconsin Rapids (Wisconsin), Redmond (Washington), Peoria (Arizona), Brandenburg (Kentucky), Sabine Pass (Texas), and Cathedral City (California).

A couple of these like Peoria (pop. 138,000) and Casper (pop. 52,000) are small cities. Others like Lawton (1,800) or Richwood (3,200) have the populations of small rural towns. On the face of it, if you were to intone this litany of the home places of the dead, it would minimally qualify as a list of the forgotten places of America, the sorts of hometowns you would only know if you had grown up there (or somewhere in the vicinity).

Are Sabine Pass or Cambridge, Illinois (not Massachusetts), or Wisconsin Rapids small towns in rural America? Probably, though any one of them (like Temecula) could, in fact, be a suburb of some larger urban area. Still you get the point. Go read the Pentagon death notices yourself, if you doubt me on where the dead of this war seem to be coming from.

As it happens, though, we don’t have to rely on the anecdotal or the look of the names of the places from which the American dead have come. Demographer William O’Hare and journalist Bill Bishop, working with the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, which specializes in the overlooked rural areas of our country, have actually crunched the numbers in an important study that has gotten too little attention. Matching a data set from the Department of Defense listing the dead and their hometowns against information from the White House Office of Management and Budget on which counties in this country are metropolitan, they found that the American dead of the Iraq and Afghan Wars do indeed come disproportionately from rural America. Quite startlingly so.

According to their study, the death rate “for rural soldiers (24 per million adults aged 18 to 59) is 60% higher than the death rate for those soldiers from cities and suburbs (15 deaths per million).” Of rural areas, Vermont has the highest rate of casualties, followed by Delaware, South Dakota, and Arizona. Only 8 of our states have higher urban than rural death rates.

Demographer O’Hare, who himself grew up in the small Michigan town of Flushing, tells Tomdispatch:

“We know that soldiers from rural America are dying at higher rates than those from urban America, strikingly higher, 60% higher. We know, from other research, that the rural young join the military at higher rates than those from metropolitan areas. The dearth of opportunity in rural areas simply leaves more young people there with fewer alternatives to the military.

“Dozens of case studies show that opportunities are moving away, part of a long-term shift. The opportunity differential between rural and urban America is probably higher now than at any time in the past. Our study highlights the price some young folks and their families are paying for lack of opportunity in rural America.”

What does this mean? Just over 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq. If the U.S. population is 300 million, then that’s just 0.001% of it. Add into this the fact that the American dead come disproportionately from the most forgotten, least attended to parts of our country, from places that often have lost their job bases; consider that many of them were under or unemployed as well as undereducated, that they generally come from struggling, low-income, low-skills areas. Given that we have an all-volunteer military (so that not even the threat of a draft touches other young Americans), you could certainly say that the President’s war in Iraq — and its harm — has been disproportionately felt. If you live in a rural area, you are simply far more likely to know a casualty of the war than in most major metropolitan areas of the country.

No wonder it’s been easy for so many Americans to ignore such a catastrophic war until relatively recently. This might, in a sense, be considered part of a long-term White House strategy, finally faltering, of essentially fighting two significant wars abroad while demobilizing the population at home. When, for instance, soon after the 9/11 attacks the President urged Americans to go to Disney World or, in December 2006, to go “shopping more” to help the economy, he meant it. We were to go on with our normal lives, untouched by his war.

In an interview this week, the Newshour’s Jim Lehrer asked the President the following:

“If it is as important as you’ve just said — and you’ve said it many times — as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it’s that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military — the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They’re the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.”

And here was the President’s pathetic but indicative answer:

“Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.”

In other words, our President wants — has always wanted — most of us to do nothing whatsoever.

To put all of this in some kind of crude context, let’s consider the Iraqi side of this horrific equation. Just recently, the United Nations announced that in 2006, approximately 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. As Jon Wiener pointed out at the Nation Magazine’s “The Notion” blog, this was clearly an undercount. Not all the December 2006 figures for the civilian dead were even in when it was toted up; bodies that didn’t make it to morgues or hospitals couldn’t be counted; embattled areas where officials might have underreported couldn’t be dealt with; and, of course, though we don’t know how the UN separated combatants from noncombatants, the report “almost certainly omitted deaths of Iraqi policemen, soldiers, insurgent fighters, and members of private militias like the Badr brigade.”

Nonetheless, if the Iraqi population is about 27 million, then even that one-year undercount represents more than 0.1% of it. If, as such figures do indicate, total Iraqi deaths since the invasion reached even the low end of the recent Lancet study’s estimates — that is, several hundred thousand dead (and they could well be far higher) — then we are talking about a country that has already lost at least 1% of its population as direct casualties of the President’s invasion and occupation. (Remove relatively peaceful Iraqi Kurdistan from the equation and these numbers will, of course, look worse.)

To take another crude measure of such things, sociologists sometimes claim that an average American knows approximately 200 people by their first names. So think of those 3,000 dead Americans, significantly from rural areas, as known on a first-name basis to 600,000 other people. (If you include the war wounded, of course, these figures would go far higher.) On the same exceedingly crude basis, those 34,000 dead Iraqi civilians of 2006 alone would have been known by 6,800,000 other Iraqis. If you add in the Iraqi wounded, those who have fled the country, those who have become internal refugees in the roiling civil war and ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods, there obviously can essentially be no one in Iraq who has escaped intimate knowledge of the ravages of the American invasion and occupation, and the insurgency and civil war that have followed.

In other words, you have a war launched by a country whose people, in a personal sense, can hardly know that it’s going on and it’s being fought in a country that has been taken apart and ravaged more or less down to the last citizen.

Or think of it this way: The forgotten rural American dead are the Iraqis of the American War. I leave you to wonder about what the Iraqi dead are.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

[Note: The Carsey Institute report by William O’Hare and Bill Bishop, “U.S. Rural Soldiers Account for a Disproportionately High Share of Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan” can be read by clicking here (pdf file) or you can go to this page at Rural, an interesting outfit that also focuses on the problems of rural America, to find the report and more material on the rural dead of the war, including a good piece on small towns and casualties by Nick Stump that appeared on the Daily Kos site.]

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt