WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the movie "For the Love of the Game," actor Kevin Costner plays a major league pitcher nearing the end of his career. A lady friend who is unfamiliar with the nuances of the sport asks him why a particular, obscure statistic is kept. "This is baseball," Costner's character answers, "we count everything!"
So do journalists. With ceaseless polling, they gauge the public's opinion on everything from the president's job approval ratings to his favorite vegetable. Newspaper editors live and die by the number of column inches they have for a story. From baseball scores to inflation figures, journalists are nearly lost without statistics that help them put their slant on the news.
The masters of the mainstream media have been opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning and have expressed that opposition in numbers. They've told us how many bombings have occurred in a particular week or month, how many days the war has lasted, how many "leading experts" are also opposed and the number of ways Iraq compares to Vietnam.
This week, with the 2,000th American casualty from Iraq, they were provided the opportunity to quantify their outrage yet again. The story was given ample coverage on the nightly network news programs, while the official results of the Iraqi constitution, which passed overwhelmingly, were barely mentioned. Perhaps that's because the New York Times, from which the networks take their cue, called it a "deeply flawed and divisive document."
The Seattle Post Intelligencer said the deaths in Iraq are being met by the American people with "anger, regret and uncertainty about the future." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University, claimed that "casualty tolerance in Iraq is clearly much lower than it was in Vietnam." He repeated the media's mantra for the past year -- that support for the war "is eroding," and the people are "[losing] their stomach for war," a conflict which, referring to President George W. Bush, Mueller called "his war."
Mueller did get one thing right. In the media, there is a "steady drumbeat of carnage" that focuses on the horrors of war. Last week in this column, I cited a report from the Media Research Center showing that the nightly network news programs have overwhelmingly portrayed the war in a negative light. They've given very little network time to stories of bravery, heroism and sacrifice that occur on a daily basis.
Even a cartoonist joined the protest of the war dead. Mike Luckovich, who draws for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sketched a cartoon that asked "WHY?," wherein the block letters W-H-Y contained the names of the 2,000 U.S. casualties. Luckovich explained that he "was trying to think of a way to make the point that this whole war is such a waste. But I also wanted to honor the troops I believe our government wrongly sent to Iraq."
One way to honor the troops is to stop spreading the idea that they died for a mistake or that they were "wrongly sent to Iraq."
It's a protest that Democrats were eager to join. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) had a news release prewritten, all ready to go, once the word came forth from the Pentagon that the target had been hit. "The U.S. military today," the release said, "crossed a tragic, painful milestone in the war in Iraq." Then DNC chairman Howard Dean chastised the president's speech at Bolling Air Force Base saying the president "failed to mention the mounting death toll." That omission, Dean said, "is not the type of leadership that the brave men and women serving in Iraq and their loved ones here at home expect or deserve from the commander-in-chief."
Listen Howie, the president doesn't need lessons in leadership from the Screaming Wonder. He meets with the families of fallen military personnel. He visits the wounded in the hospitals. He has cried with them. He has prayed with them.
On Capitol Hill, senators observed a moment of silence to commemorate the 2,000th casualty. (The moment passed before John Kerry could make up his mind whether to be for it or against it.) But one thing Kerry does favor is pulling American troops out of Iraq.
"The insurgency will not be defeated unless our troop levels are drawn down," Kerry inexplicably told a group at Georgetown University. Sen. Russ Feingold used the occasion of the 2,000th casualty to renew his call for an artificial deadline and said the U.S. has "created a breeding ground for terrorism in Iraq."
The loss of every life in Iraq is heartbreaking. But the number 2,000 is not, as Lt. Col. Steve Boylan said, "a milestone." Frustrated by the media's anticipation of the 2,000th casualty and the planning of anti-war protests to commemorate it, Boylan called it what it is -- an "artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives."
What is truly worth noting is the number of young men and women who are willing to serve their country in an age of such cynicism.