The death toll for American soldiers in Iraq hit the 2,500 mark yesterday with the national press not particularly eager to make much of it.


It was a sharp contrast with last October, when, as we noted here, the media used the occasion of the 2,000th U.S. military death in Iraq to examine the lives of the soldiers who had been killed and the effects on the families they had left behind. Not only did the big papers neglect to write original stories for the occasion, but the Associated Press and Reuters reports that they did use were more about the political implications of the number than they were about the ruined human lives that it represents.


What seemed to matter more than dead soldiers was the speculation about how the death toll would influence the president or his party’s political fortunes. Here’s how the AP story began: “The Pentagon confirmed Thursday that 2,500 U.S. troops have died in the Iraq war since it began more than three years ago, marking a grim milestone even as President Bush hopes a recent spate of good news will reverse the war’s widespread unpopularity at home. The latest death was announced as Congress was launching into a symbolic election-year debate over the war, with Republicans rallying against calls by some Democrats to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.”


As Tony Snow blithely told reporters yesterday, ”It’s a number.”


Television was no different. Charlie Gibson on ABC gave the story the same political rather than human importance, starting his broadcast yesterday by saying, “There is a sad milestone to be noted in the Iraq war. The Pentagon announced today that 2,500 American servicemen and women have now died in Iraq. On Capitol Hill, both the House and the Senate stood and observed a moment of silence. The House observed its moment of silence and then began a passionate debate — a debate that takes place every day, at dinner tables, barbershops, wherever Americans gather: Whether the war in Iraq was worth starting. And whether it is worth continuing. It’s a debate that will shape this year’s Congressional elections.”


Back in October, we noted that the number 2,000 was an arbitrary moment to start examining the human costs of the war. Still, the press needs news pegs and that one provided an opportunity to do what newspapers and broadcast journalists and editors had too seldom done: look deeply into the lives of the young soldiers who are being lost in this conflict.


With an unofficial ban on showing American death on our television screens and an official ban on filming the returning caskets, most Americans continue to go about their everyday lives fairly oblivious to the casualties of war. And most in the media still seem to fear a label of “anti-war” or “leftist” if they linger too long on this aspect of the conflict. The result is that, beyond the few names that might scroll down our screens at the end of the evening newscast, the war remains conveniently invisible.


This makes it all the more unfortunate that an opportunity was squandered yesterday. Rather than using the 2,500th death, arbitrary number though it might be, as an occasion to look again at the human cost of the war — can we ever look too much? — it was taken simply as one more political weapon to be exploited by one side against the other.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.