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Death and Fame in a Star-Spangled Season

Two men died nearly simultaneously last week, and their deaths remind us of the differences between heroes and stars.

As you celebrate July 4 on the beach or backyard or beneath a canopy of fireworks, nearly 200,000 Americans will be serving in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The June 30 pullback of U.S. combat forces from Iraqi cities was met there with celebration and violence but received only modest news coverage here in America. The death lists grow, but the wars are largely off the front pages.

The death of the tragic, eccentric, brilliantly talented pop star Michael Jackson consumed headlines and churned cable TV and the Internet gossip mills. He was 50. There are reports that drug use may have contributed to his early passing.

Jackson's death became the No. 1 news story in America for days. It dwarfed the fading unrest in Iran and the rising debate over health care. Helicopters followed Jackson's body from mansion to coroner. Talking heads debated whether Jackson would be remembered for his music or the child molestation allegations he confronted in his 40s.

He was planning a comeback tour.

Almost at the same time Jackson died, a tour of duty ended for Army Sgt. Timothy David of Gladwin, Mich.

David was killed by an improvised explosive device in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. He was 28. A picture of his casket being unloaded at a military facility in Delaware hit a few home-town media and Internet Web sites. The Pentagon released a 50-word statement announcing his death.

He was added to the list of more than 4,300 Americans who have died in Iraq, including four the day U.S. combat forces pulled out of Iraqi cities.

David's dad and high school track coach told a Michigan reporter the young man had never been any trouble. A high school classmate wrote on a local TV Web site, "We are all gonna miss him RIP." Anonymous posters called him a hero.

The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraqi cities would have been dominant news two years ago.

But Jackson's death, along with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's bizarre love affair and the passing of Farrah Fawcett and TV sidekick Ed McMahon, have crowded the front pages this star-spangled season. The last time Iraq was even in the top 10 media stories was the week of April 20-26, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Yet, as Sgt. David's death points out, the war is far from over. Some fear a spike in violence as the Americans pull back. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said he was optimistic Iraqi security forces could keep the peace, but he cautioned that "there's still going to be violence here."

The withdrawal was relatively easy compared with what's to happen next year, "when we downsize more than 50 percent nationwide," said the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon, referring to President Barack Obama's goal of reducing U.S. troop levels from 130,000 today to 50,000 in September 2010.

Wake Forest University professor David Coates, a former British professor who has studied how the war in Iraq has affected U.S.-British relations, said he was surprised at the lack of attention paid to the June 30 pullout.

"I heard of soldiers angry that Michael Jackson's death was obscuring everything, including this," he said. "They have a point."

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