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Casualty Counts

Critics of the troop surge have been arguing that it isn’t making any difference on the ground—the only thing it’s doing, they claim, is driving up American casualties. The facts are starting to contradict their claims.

I’ve recently posted a couple of items noting that reliable on-the-ground observers—namely Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of The Brookings Institution and John Burns of the New York Times—have found that violence against Iraqis is falling. Now comes news that the number of American casualties is also declining, at least temporarily.

There were spikes in the number of Americans killed in action in April (104), May (126), and June (101)—up from 83 in January, 81 in February, and 81 in March. The increases were to be expected because this was the period when more American troops were arriving in Iraq, and were starting to go on the offensive against Shiite and Sunni insurgents. All along, the theory behind the surge was that while there might be a short-term spike in casualties, eventually, as the troops started to get the situation under better control, our losses would decline.

As this Associated Press story notes, that seems to be what’s happening: they report the death tolls for July as 73, while the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count reports it as 74. Whether 73 or 74, that’s the lowest figure in eight months—since November 2006, when 70 Americans were killed.

We should not, of course, read too much into these statistics. There have been declines in past summers as well, while in previous falls, the numbers of casualties have again increased. (Perhaps insurgents don’t enjoy fighting in 120 degree heat.) It doesn’t take many atrocities to cause a spike in the body count. And even though, now, the number is lower than it has been in the past eight months, 73 dead Americans is still 73 too many. Nevertheless, as the public and its elected representatives try to draw conclusions about whether the U.S. strategy is working, they should take the current decline in casualties as a modest indicator of progress.

But, of course, mere facts won’t change the minds of committed antiwar advocates. Check out this CNN interview with Congressman Jack Murtha. He was asked for his thoughts on yesterday’s O’Hanlon-Pollack article in the New York Times. Here is Murtha’s reply: “I don’t know where they were staying. I don’t know what they saw. But I know this, that it’s not getting better. It’s rhetorical is what is getting better.”