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Shameful Math

Today, the BBC News runs the headline “U.S. deaths in Iraq rise sharply in May,” and follows it with this subhead: “U.S. forces in Iraq suffered their highest casualties last month than any month since September 2008.”

The gruesome business of casualty math has a way of making the mathematician seem almost instantly inhuman, so it is with trepidation that I challenge what constitutes rising “sharply” over at the BBC. In May there were 25 American deaths, but what the BBC story never mentions is that that’s five or six more (depending on your source) than in April. It can’t be stressed enough that the loss of one American soldier is an incalculable tragedy. But the BBC should be called out for exaggeration and omission, and that requires noting that the rise in American casualties in Iraq from April to May was less steep than the rise from March to April — 10. If one wanted to put these figures to bald political use one could make the point that the rise in American casualties in Iraq may be leveling off. It goes to show how unhelpful it can be to play around with these numbers in order to create compelling copy.

But there’s a larger point and it doesn’t make the headline: May 2009 “saw the fewest deaths from terrorist violence in [Iraq] since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.” Longitudinally and strategically, that’s a more useful metric than the one the BBC chose to advertise. It is also, not coincidentally, a profoundly encouraging one. Let the lives of the soldiers and marines who achieved that milestone not be toyed with for the sake of propaganda.



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