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When Tragedy Becomes a Statistic
by Matt Kinnell
27 April 2004Iraqi Flag

In our minds a single American death is a tragedy; a million Iraqi deaths is but a statistic.


Josef Stalin once said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”  Unfortunately, that seems to be the prevailing perception of the American general public, fueled by the heart-wrenching media coverage of every American military death and impatient for an end to the violence in Iraq.

The anti-Bush outrage against the war grows day after day, and the tragic, yet relatively small body count of American servicemen and women draws unsubstantiated and foolish comparisons to a Vietnam quagmire from left-wing pundits, politicians, and professors.  One never hears from these liberal voices, however, of the untold number of Iraqis who died under the oppressive boot of Saddam Hussein.  In fact, it seems that President Bush has to remind reporters in every press conference that Saddam was a brutal, murderous dictator who denied his own people their basic, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

How many million lives will be saved in Iraq because Saddam will no longer execute his will in that country?  But in our minds a single American death is a tragedy; a million Iraqi deaths is but a statistic.

As I have contemplated that Stalin quote and how it compares to the current situation in Iraq, I was reminded of another byte from history.  Edmund Burke, the Irish-born political commentator of the 18th century, wrote that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” 

Evil triumphed in Iraq for decades during Saddam’s rule, and, while he was reprimanded for his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, good men have generally stood by and watched Saddam murder his own people.  What kept the “good men” of the world from doing something about this?  Maybe they were cowardly.  Maybe they did not have the military capability.  Maybe they had the promise of lucrative oil contracts. 

Maybe there were no good men in the world with the power or the will to do something.  It took the horror of 9/11 and the fear of a more horrible attack to convince the United States, the world’s champion of democracy and human rights, to intervene.  And now that we have intervened, it seems the general public has not the heart to finish the job.

The Bush administration, along with its allies in the Coalition of the Willing, realized the threat of Saddam Hussein.  They realized his threat to the people of Iraq, to the stability of the Middle East, and to the security of the United States.  Past leaders have failed to recognize such threats.

If George W. Bush had been president in the early 1950’s, history would have been a bit different.  Harry Truman held firm to the foreign policy of containment, resisting Communism’s spread into South Korea, but refusing to free any areas already enslaved by Communism, specifically North Korea.  I think Bush would have embraced Douglas MacArthur’s “there is no substitute for victory” policy.  I believe a highly mobile American military force could have cut off Communist support from China and created a free and united Korean peninsula.

Just imagine for a moment what victory on the Korean peninsula in the 1950’s would mean:  that the world would never have heard of Kim Jong-Il.  The “Dear Leader’s” government has been responsible for untold deaths of Korean people by starvation, disease, and Kim’s own concentration camps where political dissidents, their children, and even their grandchildren are imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.  But those lives are just statistics.

If George W. Bush had been president during the latter years of the Vietnam War, would he have allowed Congress to strip the American forces of the tools they needed for victory?  I think not, for never have we had a president so committed to keeping his troops in full supply.  Cambodia and Laos would not have fallen like dominos.  Three million Cambodians would not have been slaughtered by the regime of the Khmer Rouge.  But those lives are just statistics.

In 1939, Neville Chamberlain was ready to give Hitler almost anything to avoid war and have “peace for our time.”  What if the current determined British Prime Minister Tony Blair had stood up to Hitler before his army could mobilize and subjugate the rest of mainland Europe?  Would we have seen the tremendous loss of life that resulted in World War II?  I think not.  And perhaps the eleven million lives of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and members of other “evolutionally inferior” races would not have been snuffed out.  But those lives are just statistics.

Already we have seen the positive results of the Bush Doctrine.  Democracies are being constructed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Muammar Qadhafi has agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction and pursue a future of peace.  There will be generations because of what the American military has done in response to the attacks on our shores – businessmen who are free to make better lives for themselves and their families, students who are free to learn, parents who are free to raise their children with their own values, children who are free to chose their own path and career, and believers who may worship in peace.

A single death will always be a tragedy, and we will grieve for every American life lost in the service of this country.  But a million deaths is much more than a statistic – it is an indictment of the human race.  And it is a poor reflection of those in this world who claim to be “good men.”

Matt Kinnell is a history teacher at Mount Carmel High School in Vancleve, Kentucky.

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