Dying in the Fullness of Their Promise

“War is always the same. It is young men dying in the fullness of their promise. It is trying to kill a man that you do not even know well enough to hate. Therefore, to know war is to know that there is still madness in this world. ~Lyndon B. Johnson

These words were delivered on January 12, 1966 in the President’s State of the Union address. Though he was cognizant of the terrible costs and utter insanity of war, Johnson was nonetheless arguing for the necessity of U.S. military intervention in a far-off land. What has changed or been learned in the decades since?

It is Memorial Day, 2007. American soldiers are at war in a far-off land. As of this moment, 3,455 U.S. troops have perished in Iraq. An analysis of those who have fallen reveals some sobering data about the terrible costs of this war. Though he was wrong about Vietnam, President Johnson was unerringly right about soldiers “dying in the fullness of their promise”:

• The average age of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq is approximately 26 (25.98) years old.
• More than three-quarters (75.95%) of those killed have been under the age of 30 (2,624).
• 230 teenage soldiers (aged 18-19) have been killed in Iraq.
• On average, U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq lost two-thirds of their expected lives (given the average life expectancy of an American).
• Collectively, the total number of expected years of life lost by U.S. soldiers is 179,728 years.

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4 responses

  1. Donald Wolberg

    Numbers like words have meaning, and as with words, numbrs can be misleading, if not by intention then by misunderstanding. Indeed the war in Iraq has taken a terrible toll of American life, and the death toll of our military has now exceeded the number of deaths that resulted from the madness of the attack on our Nation on 11 September. By contrast, the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese that led to American participation in World War II killed 2,403 Americans and wounded another 1,178. But World War II led to a horror that no one, except perhaps the Japanese, German and Italian “ringleaders” could imagine, but more of this later.

    In “normal” circumstances, and taking a typical year, some almost 2.5 million (2,500,000) Americans die each year from all causes (10 million in the last 5 years or so). More than 43,000 die each year in traffic accidents (more than 200,000 in the last 5 years). Approximately 28,000 Americans die each year as a result of gunshot (almost 150,000 in the last 5 years). I think most of us will agree that alcohol is certainly a major cause of vehicle deaths, perhaps 50%. Certainly if idiots would not drink and drive they would not die or kill innocents and 100,000 Americans would not have died over the last five years. Most, again more than 50%, of the gunshot deaths are similarly avoidable; they are largely concentrated in younger age groups and in certain geographic areas. It is likely that 75,000 of these deaths can be avoided.

    Even this superficial exploration of numbers shows that perhaps 175,000 Americans died needlessly right here on our own streets, while another 3,000 Americans died far away in miserable circumstances in a place that most of us value less than we value our own land.

    What of World War II? Musch has been made by politicians and equally silly wags about how “we” managed to defeat the Axis in the same time we are attempting to bring order to Iraq. Of course the “we” needs exploring and actually means the “Allies” and the “Axis” needs consideration. And of course the horrors of that enterprise needs to be viewed. America was fortunate in World War II. I forget, but I think we has no less than 12 million Americans in our armed forces. Our military dead were 293,131 combat deaths from 1941 to 1945. We were fortunate in that we did not lose many civilians on our shores. Soviet numbers are difficult to accurately gauge but estimates are that the Soviets lost between 8.7 and 12 million in combat (8,700,000 to 12,000,000)! The Japanese, after inflicting 2400 or so deaths on us at Pearl Harbor, lost 1.6 million of their own forces. The Germans lost 1,810,061 in combat deaths and another 1,902,704 missing in action. The Soviets lost another 16 million civilians because of German attacks, while the Germans lost 3,6000 civilians from Allied attacks. The Chinese lost 1, 316,000 combat deaths and another 13 million civilians largely to the Japanese onslaught. I will go through the list of other horrors, death camps, slaughter of European Jews (6 million), ovens, slaughter houses, Rape of Nanking and so much else. Every day of all the years of World War II, more than 29,000 people died as a result of that War, a number we must view in horror and disgust. They were all ages, all races, all denominations and they were from all parts of this world. And all the deaths were unnecessary in one sense, but also necessary in the sense of removing the first causes of the evil that perpetuated them.

    I do not wish to diminish the death or injury of a single American or coalition member in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are arguments to be made that this effort is unnecessary and a waste of our soldier’s lives and our resources. There are cogent arguments that we are confronting a new horror, one based on the most vile misrepresentations of what is good in the human spirit, and one that seeks the destruction of all of other beliefs. I do suggest, that the level of violence is very different. This does not ease the pain of loss, or the frustrations of no complete resolution. Perhaps we will have to accept partial resolution, but the one thing we must not do is misrepresent numbers.

  2. David L. Jaffe

    I agree with much of what you have to say here, Mr. Wolberg. And I am fully cognizant that the costs of war are ever relative and that the U.S. has suffered few casualties when compared to either the Iraqi populace in the current conflict in which we have foolishly become embroiled or our own populace in past wars. My only intent in writing this post was to highlight what we have lost these last 4+ years. That such is tragic and has been unnecessary is painfully self-evident.

  3. Donald Wolberg

    I suspect we are more in agreement than disagreement, and I find the discussions at this site most challenging and relevant. I do believe that the anguish suffered by the parents and families in this wasteful episode in our history has yet to be justified in a satisfactory way by any of our elected officials. Remarkably few have committed their own to “the cause” whatever that may be, although there are exceptions. No matter what one thinks of his politics, John McCain’s son serves as does Joe Biden’s.

    The historian Doris Kerns Goodwin was most elequent during interviews in her concern for her son, an officer in the Army in Iraq. Parents do experience anguish from the day that their children-soldiers leave to the day they return. It is a constant, palpable anguish and there is the dread that they will feel that ultimate pain that arrives with a knock on the door or a telephone call.

    My intention was to cast the present in the shadow of the past, and in some sense get us to realize the magnitude of death, disease and pain that people bring on each other. My intention was also to show our “normal” and almost unquestioned pain as a nation. Firearms in America alone kill almost 29,000 of us every year and more than 12,000 of these deaths are young, between the ages of 15 and 34; 12,000 every year, much the same age as our fallen in Iraq, or World War II or Vietnam. The pain of their families can be no less.

  4. David L. Jaffe

    I suspect, as well, that we share more common ground than not, Mr. Wolberg. And I am appreciative of your thoughtful comments on the topics about which we write on this blog, not the least of which is “this wasteful episode in our history” (to use your term for the misadventure in Iraq). I also appreciate the parallel you make with the casualties suffered by American troops and the far more common—but no less tragic perhaps—casualties of gun violence that occur daily on the streets and in the homes of Americans across this nation (about which I have written before). In many ways, both with the former and the latter, we are very much our own worst enemy.

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