Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: The high human cost of war

Kyle Reeves holds his son Alexander as a California Army National Guard helicopter unit returns in 2013 after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
Kyle Reeves holds his son Alexander as a California Army National Guard helicopter unit returns in 2013 after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. Sacramento Bee file

The hawks in our nation’s capital are clamoring again for thousands more U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. And some polls are starting to show the public in favor of sending troops to battle the Islamic State.

It’s totally understandable to be afraid and angry after the Paris attack, and now much closer to home, the San Bernardino massacre. The urge to do something – even a thirst for revenge – can be powerful: Kill the terrorists over there, so they’re less of a threat here.

But we also tend to have short memories. So I looked at some numbers on what another major ground war in the Middle East could actually mean.

With our large population and tradition of military service, Californians are sure to make up a sizable number of any troops sent into combat – and of casualties.

Lest we forget, nearly 480 Californians were killed and 3,100 wounded in the post-9/11 Iraq War, and more than 250 were killed and nearly 900 wounded in the Afghanistan operation. California’s deaths account for 11 percent of the total in both wars.

With its large military bases, California has nearly 169,000 people in the active-duty military, in line with the state’s 12 percent share of the U.S. population. These are our friends and neighbors who would be the first to feel the impact of another war.

With our all-volunteer military, a very small slice of Americans have done the fighting and dying since 9/11. At the peak of the wars, 166,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Iraq and 101,000 in Afghanistan. That was only possible because many served multiple tours of duty.

A national poll out Thursday of 18- to 29-year-olds is so typical and maddening: 60 percent support sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State, but only 16 percent have already served or would join the military if more troops were needed. You can also bet that if we had a draft and the sons and daughters of the Washington elite were being sent to Syria, the warmongers would not be as enthusiastic.

Now there’s a new wrinkle with all combat roles opened to women. About 160 female service members were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. How would the public react if many more came home in body bags, or if a female soldier were captured, tortured and beheaded on video?

President Barack Obama may have underestimated the Islamic State and may not have the perfect strategy – Who does? – but he’s absolutely right to adamantly oppose another war in the Middle East. The Islamic State would like nothing better to have thousands of Americans as targets, and thousands of civilians would be caught in the crossfire.

There are times when America must go to war. But we should at least be honest about the human cost.

By the numbers

States with the most dead and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan wars:

  • California, 4,703
  • Texas, 4,205
  • Florida, 2,327
  • New York, 2,204
  • Ohio, 1,967
  • Pennsylvania, 1,964

States with most active-duty military:

  • California, 168,820
  • Virginia, 129,699
  • Texas, 124,796
  • North Carolina, 114,654
  • Georgia, 72,617
  • Florida, 65,155

Sources:, Governing magazine