Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
POV Regarding War

Conversations

War By the Numbers: Statistics and What They Mean

written by Lewis Manalo
on September 13, 2010

The numbers are shocking. There were 521 coalition troops killed in Afghanistan in 2009 (this year's total is already approaching that number, and it's only September). There are 150,000 NATO troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, and IED incidents there are up 94 percent.

These are the numbers we read in our headlines and hear from our newscasters. Once there was a time when numbers were used to support a story — to illustrate a point. Now, the data is the story, the report is the statistics. The knee-jerk reaction when you hear any number related to war come out of a reporter's mouth is to think that it's a bad number, that the digits are devastating facts. Why don't we ask what the numbers mean? Or where they come from? Why do we immediately assume that these numbers are a bad sign?

We often hear that it was "the worst day in Afghanistan so far." With a grim look in her eyes, the reporter on the nightly news tells us, "25 died since Friday." The data is supposed to tell us that things in Afghanistan are getting worse. But how did these soldiers die? Where did they die? Like politics, war is local. Because there is a foreign Al-Qaeda element fighting Americans in Helmand, does it mean that the Afghans in Khost want the Americans out of their country? Because the Afghan men in Korengal resent American soldiers, does it mean we should close the girls' school in Orgun?

Does the fact that "25 died since Friday" mean that we're losing the war in Afghanistan? That we should withdraw from the country? What do the higher U.S. casualties tell us about Taliban goals? Does the fact that there was an election in Afghanistan have anything to with the violence?

Peter Andreas, political science professor at Brown University and co-editor of the book Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: the Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, has said that "journalists on deadline, looking to fill a blank space... need a number for their story to actually be a story. [The] common tendency is to report a scary big number and then not really follow up."

Reporters have now thrown more numbers at us to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11th attacks: the number of Americans killed since the war began, the number of Afghans killed in the war, the monetary cost of the war, and so on. I neither relish the thought of people dying, nor can I offer rational explanations or self-righteous justifications for every death, but let's try (somewhat callously) to put American losses in Afghanistan in perspective: 317 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in 2009, while an average of 93 Americans died from traffic accidents every day of that same year, totaling 33,963 lives — more than 100 times the number of Americans who died in Afghanistan (the number of deaths from traffic accidents, incidentially, was at a historic low, in 2009).

For all the people protesting to end the war in Afghanistan because "25 died since Friday," is anyone making the effort to protest the end of driving?

The numbers don't determine if this war is necessary. The necessity of war is determined by what we value, what these men and women died for. The strength of our convictions should determine how long we stay in the fight, not a few numbers given without thought of context.

Share/Bookmark or e-mail a link

Send a link to this post via email:

Like this 0 likes

Are you aware of our Comment Policy?


Share the Site

Share Stories

Share your story

Links on Delicious

Funded in Part By

My Source Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Press Room

Support Independent Programming. Pledge Now »

POV is a production of American Documentary, Inc.

Copyright © 1995–2009 American Documentary, Inc.