NBC’s Seigenthaler and Engel Mislead Audience on Casualty Trends in Iraq

“Battle for Iraq — New Violence, more American casualties,” intoned the announcer on NBC Nightly News, Sun. April 16, 2006.

“This was an especially deadly day in Iraq,” explained host John Seigenthaler.  “Word [is] tonight that 4 U.S. marines have been killed, and at least 35 Iraqis died in several different attacks.”

Richard Engel, reporting from Baghdad, elaborated the theme.  “[E]ven though U.S. plans call for American troops to step back, and let Iraqi troops take the lead, U.S. casualties continue to rise.”

As Engel spoke, a “chart” was displayed, headlined  “U.S. troops killed in Iraq”


A casual viewer of this broadcast might infer first, that April 16 was an unusually violent day in Iraq, and second, that coalition casualties were rising, despite coalition efforts to train Iraqi troops.

Both inferences follow logically from the editing decisions made by NBC News.  Both are essentially untrue.

Coalition casualties have averaged 2.3 per day since the end of major combat – roughly the murder rate of New York-plus-Philadelphia over the same period.  Four deaths in a day — like no deaths — is hardly atypical.  For instance, there were four deaths on April 1st and April 6th.  And there were no U.S. fatalities on April 3 or April 5th.

The thirty-five reported civilian casualties are somewhat above the post-major-combat average, but well below the Saddam era norm. 

International Body Count, an anti-war organization that has tallied Iraqi war-related civilian deaths since January 2003, gives a low estimate of 25 deaths per day, and a high estimate of 28 deaths per day.  Dr. Stephen Cass, an Iraqi historian at Oxford, estimates the average regime-caused civilian death toll in Saddam’s era at 70-to-125 deaths per day.

We get as tired of saying this as you get of hearing it:  A BAD DAY UNDER THE COALITION IS RARELY AS VIOLENT AS AN AVERAGE DAY UNDER SADDAM.  But it’s true, and if we don’t say it, nobody will – certainly not Seigenthaler or Engel.

Even excluding the 500,000 casualties from Saddam’s wars of aggression, Saddam’s Iraq was a bloody place.  You just didn’t see it on the nightly news. The death toll from the Anfal massacres, the post-Gulf War slaughter of Shi’ites, and the routine atrocities of the Makhabaret approached 700,000.

NBC’s second point – that coalition casualties are trending upward – is simply a untrue.  Coalition casualties have been trending sharply downward for two years now, as the chart below illustrates:




The 31 U.S. fatalities of March 2006 represented the second lowest monthly tally since major combat ended.  To portray March as a “baseline” was cynical. January ’06 saw 62 fatalities.  In February, there were 55.

Taking a longer view – i.e., a relevant one – there is indeed a trend line in U.S. troop injuries and deaths: they are declining.  In the first quarter of 2006, the total U.S. casualty rate dropped 30% from last year, and 52% from 2004.  The rate of severe injury was down 38% from ’05, and 72% from ’04.  And fatalities are trending 30% lower than in either ’05 or ’06.

A major reason for the precipitous (and virtually unreported) decline in U.S. casualties was precisely what the NBC report trashed: the training and deployment of Iraqi security forces. These now number 250,000 – almost twice the size of our current deployment.  The same day that Engel was implied the futility of this development, DOD press releases celebrated it.  Coalition forces, DOD informed us, transferred operational control to the Iraqi Army in the portion of Salah al Din province containing Balad, al Duluyah, and Tethrib.   Iraqi forces played the lead role in Operation Cobra, which broke up a kidnapping and bomb-making ring in Babil province that had terrorized Haswah and Iskandariyah.

But to mention these accomplishments  would involve reporting war news.  NBC can’t be bothered with that.

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