When Michael White, a self-described “Joe Blow off the block,” set up a Web site to track U.S. casualties in Iraq he never imagined it would become a leading resource on the subject.
Nothing in his background suggested White had anything to contribute to an understanding of the Iraq war.
The 50-year-old joins the traffic every morning to get to work as a software engineer at a firm outside Atlanta. He’s never been to the Middle East, has no military training and speaks no Arabic.
But his “Iraq Coalition Casualty” site, which keeps a log of the dead and wounded among the military and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, gets a million hits a day on peak days and at least four million hits a month, White said.
It attracts analysts, journalists and defense departments as well as ordinary readers with its near real-time updates, statistics, and the names of casualties. Web audience measurement firm Hitwise calls it “one of the most visited non-partisan sites aimed at U.S. politics junkies.”
Site's creator driven to gather facts
White set up www.icasualties.org in May 2003 when the war was supposed to be winding down and says it flourished in part because of his obsessive desire to make the names, dates and places listed on the site as accurate as possible.
“I wanted people to use facts as opposed to opinions to talk about the war,” White said at his house in Stone Mountain, one of Georgia’s main tourist attractions.
“I didn’t think that the mission was accomplished. I had serious doubts that the mission would run smoothly and I wanted to keep track of how and where soldiers were dying,” he said.
As of Wednesday, it listed 2,970 U.S. soldiers confirmed dead and 13 more reported dead pending official confirmation as the total crept toward the 3,000 mark. It had recorded 22,032 U.S. wounded.
“I find the site very, very useful ... It’s well respected. It’s always updated and complete,” said Nina Kamp, senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. Kamp said the institute used the site’s graphs for its own Iraq Index project.
War by the numbers
Each day, White scours official sources and media reports, but as the project has grown that task has become ever more demanding.
White says he grabs every spare second before and after work and during his lunchbreak and has even figured out a network of coffee houses with wireless Internet where he can stop en route to and from the office to check for fresh data.
It has become a strain on his family life as the married father aims to update 365 days a year.
I-Casualties has also started tracking Iraqi civilian and military deaths, relying largely on media reports since the U.S. government says it keeps no record of civilian casualties.
“The counting of civilians is the harder job and in many ways the more strategically fraught task,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings.
Iraqi death toll remains elusive
I-Casualties gives no overall figure for Iraqi casualties and the site says the daily deaths it publishes are only a baseline, noting that actual numbers are higher.
The widely varying published totals by other groups are controversial since they are seen as an index of coalition failure to bring peace to Iraq.
At the separate “Iraq Body Count” Web site, which relies on media reports, civilian deaths are reported as ranging from a minimum of 51,897 up to 57,452 as of Wednesday.
White says he receives mail from military families who praise the site’s reliability, but he has also been attacked by those who see it as unpatriotic.
“I get the feeling that you are on the terrorists’ side in this global conflict,” said one e-mail he received.
White said tracking Iraq from the comfort of his civilian life gave him an odd perspective on the war. He was shocked by the high number of casualties from roadside bombs and was sometimes numbed by the steady drip of casualties.
“I wake up in the morning and there’s one or two deaths, or maybe three or ten .... There’s a daily toll from Iraqi deaths. There are days when I just have to play guitar and not think about this stuff for a while,” he said.