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United States numb to Iraq troop deaths experts

Michelle Nichols / Reuters | October 21 2006

In a small box titled "Names of the Dead" on page 10, The New York Times recorded the passing of Cpt. Mark Paine this week, who died after a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Iraq.

His local California newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, ran more than 700 words on Paine's death, including interviews with his mother, father and even his old Scoutmaster, while the San Francisco Chronicle ran a 500-word obituary.

This local coverage of U.S. military deaths "actually has a bigger affect on public opinion than the overall trends," said Matt Baum, an associate professor of politics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But with the U.S. military death toll hitting 2,787 on Friday, analysts said even local media coverage struggles to overcome the numbing affect of the steady flow of deaths.

"In Iraq, certainly while we were losing relatively small numbers of soldiers early on, I think that was a huge shock," said Max Boot, a senior fellow of national security studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"But now that it's kind of accumulated it doesn't have as much of a shock value. This is reminiscent of (Soviet dictator Joseph) Stalin's phrase about how 'one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.' There's some truth to that."

Boot and Baum both said threshold moments -- like the U.S. death toll reaching a key figure -- garner the greatest media coverage, but the spotlight on Iraq was likely to burn a little brighter now because of the impending U.S. congressional elections on November 7.

"You have got a heated election campaign underway and you are going to have lots of candidates highlighting it again and again and again," Baum said. "You are going to have a huge echo chamber effect that you wouldn't have in other months."

U.S. PUBLIC NUMB

An editorial in The Chicago Tribune newspaper on Friday responded to concerns from readers about why the newspaper had stopped writing about every U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

"As fighting in Iraq increased, the competition for space to cover the war news also increased. Soldier obituary/stories were often delayed and then they began to back up until they were weeks and even months behind," the editorial said.

The newspaper said it still records deaths of soldiers from Illinois and the region.


October is shaping up to be one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces in Iraq with 73 troops killed.

"I think it is true that as the numbers rise then it becomes less of a special case, we do become somewhat numb to it," said Paul Levinson, chair of the Fordham University Department of Communication and Media Studies.

Boot said the U.S. deaths in Iraq were not having the same impact on society as the Vietnam War casualties because the U.S. forces in Iraq are all volunteers, unlike many of the troops in Vietnam who were drafted.

"So it had more of an impact across all of society, whereas the impact here is more isolated because so many of the soldiers come from military communities which are clustered in a handful of states," he said.

The number of U.S. forces killed in Vietnam and Korea were also much higher. The Pentagon puts the number killed in from 1964-1973 at over 58,000, and in the Korea War from 1950-1953, at over 36,000.

Yahya Kamalipour, head of the communications department at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said that if the

media showed footage of the actual U.S. military deaths in Iraq then it would reduce some of the public numbness.

"Whether we are talking about the U.S. casualties, Iraqi casualties, or Afghanis. We are not thinking of them, whoever they are, as people -- they are faceless, they are just simply numbers and that is troublesome," he said.

 

 

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