Yesterday’s announcement of the 2,000th military casualty in Iraq brought with it the predictable news accounts of the number. And where the press saw itself highlighting an important marker in the Iraq war, many conservatives saw it as obvious politicization of an arbitrary figure (made all the more acute by the second billing given to the news out of Iraq today of the certification of last week’s referendum ratifying a new constitution for the country).


It’s worth a closer look at those complaints, especially since this particular news story is “invented,” in the sense that it’s the media who have decided to emphasize the 2,000 number. Unlike a story that results from some external event, such as a bombing or a presidential proclamation, the significance of the death toll is something the press itself has decided to highlight.


U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, director of the military’s press center, sent out an email to members of the media yesterday making the argument against too much focus on the number. “I ask that when you report on the events, take a moment to think about the effects on the families and those serving in Iraq,” Boylan wrote. “The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone. It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives.” He encouraged the press instead to celebrate the “daily milestones” of reconstruction and democratization.


Tom Bevan at Real Clear Politics offers a suggestion: take a look at the cover of the New York Post today. The headline reads “2,000 Heroes” above a quote from President Bush that the “best way to honor the sacrifice of our fallen troops is to complete the mission.” The Post, Beven says, is a positive example of how we should commemorate this day. “Members of the media may hold the sacrifices of individual soldiers in esteem but it’s fair to say that, as a whole, they have significantly less respect for or belief in the causes for which those soldiers are fighting and dying in Iraq. The result is that much of the mainstream media can’t separate the men from the mission, and feel that to write positive stories about Iraq or stories truly honoring our soldiers would be seen as propaganda supporting the policy (and indirectly the president),” Bevan writes.


So is the press making gratuitous use of this figure as a thin veil for a critique of the war?


The New York Times’ coverage consists of a broad overview that tries to touch on a few significant statistical aspects of the 2,000 dead. (It also includes four pages of miniature portrait shots of the soldiers in question.) The article spends a lot of ink examining soldiers serving multiple tours of duty. Though the piece starts off stating that “many of these service members burned with conviction in the rightness of their mission,” it contains the stories of many grieving parents remembering their children as scared and angry soldiers, not confident in the army that had sent them over. “It’s time to bring these boys home,” one mother says.


The soldiers’ commitment to keep returning for more tours is depicted less as a decision of honor or valor than one of fatalistic resignation. And though a few of the parents voice their support for the war (and one even states her opposition to Cindy Sheehan), by the tenth widow or inconsolable parent it’s hard to remember that back on A1 when you started the story, the article next to it was about the new Iraqi constitution being passed.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.