The passing of the 4,000th service member in Iraq is a tragic milestone and a testament to the cost of this war, but for those of us who live and fight in Iraq, we measure that cost in smaller, but much more personal numbers. For me those numbers are 8, the number of friends and classmates killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 3, the number of soldiers from my unit killed in this deployment. I'm 25, yet I've received more notifications for funerals than invitations to weddings.
The number 4,000 is too great to grasp even for us that are here in Iraq. When we soldiers read the newspaper, the latest AP casualty figures are glanced over with the same casual interest as a box score for a sport you don't follow. I am certain that I am not alone when I open up the Stars and Stripes, the military's daily paper, and immediately search for the section with the names of the fallen to see if they include anyone I know. While in a combat outpost in southwest Baghdad, it was in that distinctive bold Arial print in a two-week-old copy of the Stars and Stripes that I read that my best friend had been killed in Afghanistan. No phone call from a mutual friend or a visit to his family. All that had come and gone by the time I had learned about his death. I sometimes wonder, if I hadn't picked up that paper, how much longer I would have gone by without knowing perhaps another day, perhaps a week or longer until I could find the time and the means to check my e-mail to find my messages unanswered and a death notification from a West Point distro list in my inbox. The dead in Afghanistan don't seem to inspire the keeping of lists the same way that those in Iraq do, but even if they did it wouldn't matter; he could only be number 7 to me.
I'm not asking for pity, only understanding for the cost of this war. We did, after all, volunteer for the Army and that is the key distinction between this army and the army of the Vietnam War. But even as I ask for that understanding I'm almost certain that you won't be able to obtain it. Even Shakespeare, with his now overused notion of soldiers as a "band of brothers," fails to capture the bonds, the sense of responsibility to each other, among soldiers. In many ways, Iraq has become my home (by the time my deployment ends I will have spent more time here than anywhere else in the army) and the soldiers I share that home with have become my family. Between working, eating and sleeping within a few feet of the same soldiers every single day, I doubt I am away from them for more than two hours a day. I'm engaged to the love of my life, but it will take several years of marriage before I've spent as much time with her as I have with the men I serve with today.
For the vast majority of Americans who don't have a loved one overseas, the only number they have to attempt to grasp the Iraq War is 4,000. I would ask that when you see that number, try to remember that it is made up of over 1 million smaller numbers; that every one of the 1 million service members who have fought in Iraq has his or her own personal numbers. Over 1 million 8's and 3's. When you are evaluating the price of the war, weighing potential rewards versus cost in blood and treasure, I would ask you to consider what is worth the lives of three of your loved ones? Or eight? Or more? It would be a tragedy for my 8 and 3 to have died without us being able to complete our mission, but it maybe even more tragic for 8 and 3 to become anything higher.