With the insurgency in Iraq now in its eighth month, attacks resulting in American and coalition fatalities have become disturbingly routine. Just last week, nine crew members died when a Black Hawk helicopter was downed near Fallujah. How can you tell how bad the situation really is? Is it improving or getting worse? Even for journalists, it can be surprisingly difficult to pin down reliable figures for the cumulative number of casualties.
The usual suspects haven’t been so helpful in tracking these figures. Several sites like CNN provide running casualty totals, but they’re not always accurate up to the minute. The U.S. government announces individual casualties daily on the U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, and the Pentagon Web sites. But these two sites present different kinds of information (and sometimes identify the battle units in question differently), and neither publishes a regular tally. Centcom doesn’t provide names and only reports deaths that occur “in theater”—i.e., in Iraq, not after medical evacuation for wounds incurred in action there. The Defense Department releases the names of all fatalities, in and out of theater, but usually several days after the incident. It doesn’t mention the wounded at all. Even though the Americans are assisted by the British and several other countries, each country is responsible for tracking its own soldiers (see, for example, Britain’s site), and there is no official listing of overall coalition casualties.
One of the best sources of Iraq casualties, surprisingly, comes from a private citizen. Google “coalition casualty count” or “Iraq wounded,” and you’ll probably turn up lunaville.org, a site that provides numbers for both casualties and wounded, by day and month of the occupation—complete with methodologies, source information for each incident counted, and links to the latest government and media reports.
The site was born of simple frustration. Last May, after the official “end” of combat, Michael White was troubled by the lack of reliable casualty information and started doing the math on his own Web page. The 47-year-old data analyst for an Atlanta trucking company sifted through Centcom, Defense, and media reports since the invasion began and tabulated each death that could be verified. He added in the British numbers, and any other verifiable coalition deaths, and then broke these down by time period—up to the fall of Baghdad, from the fall of Baghdad to May 1, and from May 1 to the present.
Within weeks, White was getting so many hits that he decided to set up a real server. Teaming up with civil engineer Patricia Kneisler in Benicia, Calif., White set up lunaville.org. Want to know the fatality rate so far in January? It’s 1.47 per day, higher than August, September, and October. (In November, during the so-called Ramadan offensive, it spiked to 3.63.) The average number of U.S. soldiers wounded per day since the beginning of August? 9.55. The total coalition fatalities that are not combat-related? A whopping 177 people, or 30 percent. Total U.S. fatalities since the war ended on May 1? 359. Total coalition soldiers killed by hostile action in the month since the capture of Saddam on Dec. 13? 38. Most common cause of death? Hostile fire (15 percent), followed closely by small explosives attacks (12 percent). The site includes separate pages for, among other things, “fatality metrics,” “hostile/non-hostile timeline,” and “daily wounded totals.” There is also a page devoted to U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan.
White pays attention to his suggestion box, too. Many of those features listed were added at the request of the site’s users, who range from the average Joe to armed forces members and their families. Shortly after the site went up, for example, many people e-mailed White requesting that he include the wounded. At the time, the U.S. government was not releasing wounded figures on a regular basis. (Even now, a wounded soldier usually has to have been in an incident involving a coalition fatality to get reported in the daily Centcom releases.) But White learned from a civil servant in Baghdad that the government does issue an internal daily report listing the wounded to U.S. officials and civilians stationed in Iraq. The source began providing White with the numbers, which he confirmed against a weekly total he was able to get on request from Centcom, making it possible for folks back home to track the wounded as well as fatalities.
The site does have its imperfections. One Newsweek reporter recently stationed in Baghdad says the site was a valuable aid but notes that it was hard to tally numbers for a particular battle unit or location without toggling through pages of data. White himself says there is a lot of information and analysis he hasn’t yet had the time or resources to add. (Since October, the site has solicited donations to support rising maintenance costs.) As for Iraqi civilians, White says the numbers currently available are simply too unreliable to include. He refers people to iraqbodycount.org, which provides estimates.
Still, lunaville.org’s rigorous accounting has been able to turn up inconsistencies in other tallies—and in the government’s own reporting. Just before New Year’s Day, government press releases and news reports seemed to indicate two fatalities on Dec. 30: Centcom announced one on the Syrian border while the Defense Department released the name of a soldier killed in Baghdad. But the Defense Department never identified the name of the Centcom fatality, as is routine, and lunaville.org’s Kneisler discovered that, based on the location of the battle units involved, the two were likely the same incident. (Lunaville.org has removed the extra fatality from its count until Kneisler hears confirmation from Defense that there was indeed a second incident.)
In keeping to the most conservative count and omitting commentary, White and Kneisler are careful to avoid giving a political slant to the site. Some users complain the data is too cold. But with the total American body count fast closing in on 500, the numbers may speak for themselves.