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War casualty tolls now MIA from newspapers

By Steven Travers

During the Civil War, communities in both the North and South would gather to read the casualty lists from places such as Gettysburg, Manassas and Antietam. And in each subsequent war for the U.S., newspapers would list the cost to the nation’s brave sons and, later, even daughters.

During the Vietnam War, CBS, ABC and NBC nightly broadcast battlefield reports. The cameras captured bloody scenes previously not fully realized by the public.

So, too, with Afghanistan and Iraq, one constant was the daily “toll box” in newspapers, even though many Republicans believed the daily listings were a tacit attempt to embarrass President George W. Bush, as were prominent hillside memorials.

But when Barack Obama was elected president and sworn in Jan. 20, 2009, the toll boxes started fading, and by now effectively have disappeared.

When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the Obama administration began to push a narrative that, as a result, the so-called “war on terror” was over. Recently, the Obama administration made statements, later disproven, that an amateur video was the impetus for terrorist attacks on American embassies that resulted in the murder of the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

Those facts are among the evidence that the “war on terror” rages on. But Americans would not know it from reading many of the metropolitan dailies.

“Since 2009 [it] is not true that we have not printed the ‘toll boxes,'” said Jack Epstein, foreign affairs editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. “As far as Iraq, we had 18 toll boxes in 2010, and five in 2011, and as you know the United States left Iraq in 2011. As far as Afghanistan, we ran 24 in 2009, 18 in 2010, four in 2011, and two in 2012, the last one in August. As far as when we run them, it is when we have room and as you know the paper is small so space is limited. Obviously there are none for Iraq any more, and they are sporadic for Afghanistan, but we run them when we can.”

The Chronicle, along with most mainstream publications, was “small” in 2008, but still found room to prominently print the “toll boxes.” Killings have not ended in Iraq; 26 people were killed in coordinated attacks, as reported by the Associated Press, Sept. 30. There are still American advisers in country, and some have died since the official pullout.

“I don’t believe our newspaper ever did a daily box tabulating casualties or deaths,” asserts Bert Robinson, managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News. “What we’ve done consistently is stories whenever someone who is from our area is killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. And for the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, we did a package on everyone from our area who had been killed there.”

“Our daily stories in print and online frequently listed casualties, especially at the peak of both conflicts,” said Henry Fuhrmann, assisting managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. “We have for many years published a box every Sunday listing U.S. casualties from Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The Times also publishes special stories on war casualties from the state of California.

“On most Sundays, the box and the brief stories about the deceased are accompanied by full obituaries of U.S. service members from California. We aim to do one for every California service member who is killed in those two arenas.

“We augment our print coverage with a database called California’s War Dead. In addition to obituaries and photos, we provide a platform for family and friends to offer their reminiscences.”

During the Bush years, various media claimed some 100,000 civilians – sometimes many more – were killed, but during his second term, President Bush estimated “around 35,000” had died.

But current reporting skims lightly over any civilians killed over the last four years. The administration said in June the figure was in “single digits,” and the New York Times repeated it.

Pro Publica, a website devoted to “journalism in the public interest,” estimated in June that the U.S. had launched 307 drones, but only 44 during the Bush administration.

If the claim of single digits is to be believed, that would mean that at least 164 of the strikes resulted in no casualties and the other strikes resulted in very low casualty numbers, which, according to a June 18 headline, “Don’t Add Up.”

Regardless of the exact number of civilian deaths, the recent attacks in Egypt and Benghazi indicate the number is large enough to stir major violent protest.

It is also worth noting that whatever the exact number of “civilian deaths” that occurred under Bush’s watch, many of those were al-Qaida, soldiers without uniform or in official armies, yet automatically counted as “civilians.”

Steven Travers is a USC graduate and ex-pro baseball player who is the author of 20 books, including “One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation” and “The Last Icon, Tom Seaver and His Times.” His Web page is here and he can be reached at [email protected]