Thursday, August 25, 2005

Going Wobbly

UPDATE: The Skeptic Rant takes issue with this post for looking at absolute casualty numbers rather than death rates. The distinction is an important one, and both numbers can be useful if one is asking the right question. And also I must pre-empt possible complaints about what appears to be my statement that bringing the troops home would make them less safe: I assumed that would obviously be taken as rhetorical sarcasm, not a literal assertion. Clearly, combat is generally more deadly than peace, for the individual soldier; but still there was a factualy point behind my "what do you want to do, get them killed?" line -- there would still be significant numbers of accidental deaths in the military if they were brought home, so there is still a non-zero cost to be paid for peace.

Now, as to death rates, yes, since we have only a fraction of the army in Iraq, the actual death rate is higher than that due to accidents. But rates measure the danger to the individual soldier, and do not speak to the gross cost borne by the country. Instead, it is perfectly appropriate to look at the absolute number when considering the question of "quagmire", which was the point of this posting and Powerline's. The media headline number is always an absolute amount, and more than a rate is what affects public morale. If one demands a rate, the assessment of whether this is a quagmire or not should take the total population of the country as the divisor, not the (artificial!) size of the army.

So in that sense, the total military-related death rate today, EVEN including Iraq combat, as a percentage of total "strength" (population) of the country IS INDEED lower than it was in the peacetime of the 80s! This is the proper measure of "quagmire", and shows decisively that it does not exist.

See here, for example.

And as far as a combat intensity measure goes (which relates to the safety of the individual soldier -- a different question altogether!), the actual soldier death rate in Iraq should be compared not with peacetime rates (using the number of soldiers deployed) -- because duh, we know combat is more dangerous than peace -- but with combat death rates of other conflicts. I don't have that handy at the moment, but it would be an interesting comparison. I'm fairly confident it will show Iraq to be relatively low-intensity as wars go.

The original post follows:

Behold the amazing power of propaganda!

Due to the psychological "error of availability" most people easily succumb to being manipulated just by having certain numbers emphasized, devoid of context.

Hearing daily casualty counts and relentless calls of "quagmire" from Iraq is painful, so the impulse is to Bring the Troops Home.

Because, you know, "we support them", and want them to be safe.

But my goodness, why would we want to bring them home? What is the urgency to do so?

What do you want to do, get them killed???

Because the actual truth is, normal training exercises in the military killed TWICE as many American soldiers per year from 1983-1996 than the vaunted, undefeatable, deadly "insurgency" in Iraq has been able to do.

I mean really, if you bring these adult volunteers "kids" home, you're signing their death warrants!

And God forbid any of them leave the military, because civilian accidental deaths happen at a higher rate than in the army.

Given how insanely safe it is to be fighting in Iraq for our armed forces by any standard -- the casualties don't even make it out of the statistical noise of accidents! -- I shudder to think what would happen on the home front if we had a more efficient foe to face, we have grown so pathetic, effete, and weak in our decadence.

It's only because of media reporting that we think, say, 40 deaths a month from combat is something to get all hyper about, when every month 120 were dying just accidentally in the military for the previous 20 years. The media could have made that front-page news every day -- another 4 soldiers killed! -- but they didn't mention it, so nobody got demoralized. But now they make sure you hear about EVERY SINGLE DEATH, without context.

They don't tell you those 40 died, for example, in the course of not a mere training exercise, but while killing off professional al-Qaeda terrorists by the bucketloads who otherwise would be planning mass murder attacks on our schools and churches.

Here are the numbers from the Department of Defense, as revealed at Powerline.

From 1983-1996, there were about 1,300 accidental military deaths per year. (And that was over a period of rapid decline in accidents, by a whopping 2/3; it was much worse in the 1970s.)

By contrast, we've lost about 600 per year since the fall of Baghdad to the mighty "insurgents."

I've heard 879 men drowned just in rehearsing for the D-Day invasion of Normandy alone.

Have some perspective! Don't go "all wobbly", as the "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher admonished Bush the Elder after Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Powerline elaborates:
It is universally acknowledged that public support for the Iraq war is eroding. Some of the polls supporting this claim are faulty because they are based on obviously misleading internal data, but the basic point cannot be denied: many Americans, possibly even a majority, have turned against the war.

This should hardly be a surprise. On the contrary, how could it be otherwise? News reporting on the war consists almost entirely of itemizing casualties. Headlines say: "Two Marines killed by roadside bomb." Rarely do the accompanying stories--let alone the headlines that are all that most people read--explain where the Marines were going, or why; what strategic objective they and their comrades were pursuing, and how successful they were in achieving it; or how many terrorists were also killed. For Americans who do not seek out alternative news sources like this one, the war in Iraq is little but a succession of American casualties. The wonder is that so many Americans do, nevertheless, support it.

The sins of the news media in reporting on Iraq are mainly sins of omission. Not only do news outlets generally fail to report the progress that is being made, and often fail to put military operations into any kind of tactical or strategic perspective, they assiduously avoid talking about the overarching strategic reason for our involvement there: the Bush administration's conviction that the only way to solve the problem of Islamic terrorism, long term, is to help liberate the Arab countries so that their peoples' energies will be channelled into the peaceful pursuits of free enterprise and democracy, rather than into bizarre ideologies and terrorism. Partly this omission is due to laziness or incomprehension, but I think it is mostly attributable to the fact that if the media acknowledged that reforming the Arab world, in order to drain the terrorist swamp, has always been the principal purpose of the Iraq war, it would take the sting out of their "No large stockpiles of WMDs!" theme.

One wonders how past wars could have been fought if news reporting had consisted almost entirely of a recitation of casualties. The D-Day invasion was one of the greatest organizational feats ever achieved by human beings, and one of the most successful. But what if the only news Americans had gotten about the invasion was that 2,500 allied soldiers died that day, with no discussion of whether the invasion was a success or a failure, and no acknowledgement of the huge strategic stakes that were involved? Or what if such news coverage had continued, day by day, through the entire Battle of Normandy, with Americans having no idea whether the battle was being won or lost, but knowing only that 54,000 Allied troops had been killed by the Germans?
We are conducting an experiment never before seen, as far as I know, in the history of the human race. We are trying to fight a war under the auspices of an establishment that is determined--to put the most charitable face on it--to emphasize American casualties over all other information about the war.

Sometimes it becomes necessary to state the obvious: being a soldier is a dangerous thing. This is why we honor our service members' courage. For a soldier, sailor or Marine, "courage" isn't an easily-abused abstraction--"it took a lot of courage to vote against the farm bill"--it's a requirement of the job.

Even in peacetime. The media's breathless tabulation of casualties in Iraq--now, over 1,800 deaths--is generally devoid of context. Here's some context: between 1983 and 1996, 18,006 American military personnel died accidentally in the service of their country. That death rate of 1,286 per year exceeds the rate of combat deaths in Iraq by a ratio of nearly two to one.

That's right: all through the years when hardly anyone was paying attention, soldiers, sailors and Marines were dying in accidents, training and otherwise, at nearly twice the rate of combat deaths in Iraq from the start of the war in 2003 to the present. Somehow, though, when there was no political hay to be made, I don't recall any great outcry, or gleeful reporting, or erecting of crosses in the President's home town.
The point? Being a soldier is not safe, and never will be. Driving in my car this afternoon, I heard a mainstream media reporter say that around 2,000 service men and women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq "on President Bush's watch." As though the job of the Commander in Chief were to make the jobs of our soldiers safe. They're not safe, and they never will be safe, in peacetime, let alone wartime.

What is the President's responsibility? To expend our most precious resources only when necessary, in service of the national interest. We would all prefer that our soldiers never be required to fight. Everyone--most of all, every politician--much prefers peace to war.

But when our enemies fly airplanes into our skyscrapers; attack the nerve center of our armed forces; bomb our embassies; scheme to blow up our commercial airliners; try to assassinate our former President; do their best to shoot down our military aircraft; murder our citizens; assassinate our diplomats overseas; and attack our naval vessels--well, then, the time has come to fight.
All they ask is to be allowed to win.
Don't go wobbly!


Post a Comment

<< Home