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CASUALTY “TOLL BOXES” ARE MIA IN NEWSPAPERS
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During the Civil War, communities in both the North and South would gather to read the casualty lists from Gettysburg, Manassas, Antietam. Each subsequent war, newspapers and later other forms of news communications would inform the American public how many of her brave sons (and later even daughters) died in service to their country. During the Vietnam War, CBS, ABC and NBC nightly broadcast battlefield reports. The cameras captured bloody scenes previously not fully realized by the public.

 

While there were no shortage of cameras recording the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, one constant was the daily “toll box” found in virtually every newspaper of any real size in America, listing how many service members had died in Afghanistan the previous day; in Iraq the previous day; in the War on Terror weekly. Many conservatives felt the daily listings were a tacit attempt to “embarrass” President George W. Bush, as were prominent hillside “memorials” meant to display to all the cost of the war.

 

It can be said that what is not reported is often more subversive and telling than what is reported. Four years ago, Barack Obama was elected President. He was sworn in January 20, 2009. At some point, the toll boxes listing casualties, as much a staple of George Bush’s Presidency as any factor, disappeared.

 

When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the Obama Administration began to push a narrative that, as a result, the War on Terror was over. Recently, the Obama Administration made statements, later disproven, that an amateur video, not blowback from bin Laden’s killing and large civilian casualties from drone strikes, were the impetus for terrorist attacks on American embassies, resulting in the murder of Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. The killings shed stark light on the fact that President Obama’s claim of victory in the decade-long-plus struggle is far from accurate. The war rages on.

 

In some respects, newspaper readers would not know it from reading metropolitan dailies. Toll boxes listing servicemen killed and injured were often printed on page one, and certainly held a prominent place in war coverage. The result was a constant reminder that President Bush had started both wars, with the result being the death of Americans. While President Obama did not start either war, he has presided over them for four years.

 

“Since 2009 is not true that we have not printed the ‘toll boxes,’ ” says 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 anymore 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 were killed in coordinated attacks, as reported by the Associated Press September 30. There are still American advisors 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,” says 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. The different organizations prominently touting large civilian death counts between 2001 and 2008 are silent or given no play in most newspapers. There are not many efforts at holding Obama to account for drone strike casualties, which in June his administration said was in the “single digits.” The New York Times and other sources repeated this line.   

 

Pro Publica, a web site 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 were to be believed, that would mean that at least 164 of the strikes resulted in no casualties (as President Bush once joked in reference to President Bill Clinton’s ineffective drones, “hittin’ a camel in the butt”), and the other strikes resulted in very small casualties, which according to their 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” occurred under Bush’s watch, many of those were Al Qaeda, soldiers without uniform or in official armies, yet automatically counted as “civilians.”

 

 

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