Saturday, September 03, 2005

Wobbly Revisited

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.

Skeptic Rant appears to debunk the claim that serving in Iraq is no more dangerous than peacetime military operations. That, however, is a straw-man argument, as that was not the actual claim either I or Powerline made.

As to what appeared to be my statement that bringing the troops home would make them less safe, "what do you want to do, get them killed?": 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 factual point behind my line.

Now, as to death rates, yes, since we have only a fraction of the army in Iraq, the actual combat risk 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 that 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. Much like national debt should be seen in relation to total GDP.

So it really depends on what question you are asking, as to the proper statistic to use.

If one is interested in the intensity of conflict, then the death rate per soldier deployed would be reasonable. That wasn't what I or Powerline was talking about. We know that combat is more intense than peace! The proper internal comparison, furthermore, then would be not to peacetime death rates, but to death rates per soldier deployed during other wars.

Instead, what Powerline and I were addressing was the "quagmire" claim and the effect on public morale due to casualty reports without context.

The proper measure then, in terms of war cost to the country's strength, is the number of deaths per year per million population, for a rate that allows an apples-to-apples comparison across time.

Let's look at those numbers, shall we?

The original accidental death stats came from this DoD Press Release. More detailed numbers from the DoD can be found in this document. The latter document has more specific categories, and it appears to rectify the numbers between the two DoD reports, the first Press Release was probably combining "Accidents" with "Homicides". Let's be really conservative and only use the pure accident listing from the detailed report, and keep out homicide, self-inflicted, and illness causes.

Now let's also look at this DoD document that gives total hostile AND non-hostile deaths over the last 4 years of the GWOT in both Iraq, Afghanistan, and surrounding areas.

Let's also get census information about the population from here.

And let's look at some past wars.

For example, I compute (approximately; I'm rounding off the durations to the nearest year), WW2 cost this country over 500 deaths per year per million population due purely to combat.

It approached 700 per year per million from all causes.

The Korean War? About 70 per year per million.

Vietnam? About 20 per year per million, overall.

At its height from 1968 to 1970, Vietnam was in the range of 25 to 30/yr/million.

That's what war looks like.

What about peace?

Using the yearly DoD stats, and ONLY looking at accidents, 4-year rolling average military accidental death rates per year per million population are:

1983 6.5
1985 5.8
1987 5.4
1989 4.9
1991 4.0
1993 3.2
1995 2.5
1997 2.0
1999 1.7

Now for the 4 years of the QUAGMIRE? Our average population from 2001 to now was about 290 million. Total Hostile deaths are 1578 and non-hostile 537, for 2115 total over 4 years, or 529 per year.

Which is 1.8 per million!

Does that look like war or peace?

Quagmire or victory?

Vietnam, or 10% of Vietnam?

But wait, there might be a little catch. What about accidents happening that are not related to either the Iraq or Afghanistan operations? We must count those too, and they might not be included in the published DoD figures.

I can't find that number.

Let's be really conservative and take the last number of accidents that I can find, for 1999, which was 411. Even though the trend was down, let's assume it stayed constant after that. And let's also "double-count", by still taking all accidental deaths reported in the combat theaters, and adding them to total assumed non-theater accidents, assuming that every in-theater accident is one that otherwise would never have happened in peacetime (which is false).

Then the estimated total cost comes to something like 3.2 deaths per million per year, for our 4-year combat operations.

Well, that's more than the late 1990s -- when the armed forces were being shut down and demobilized as part of the "peace dividend"...but still on par with 1993!

And it's still fully HALF the rate of the peacetime of the early 1980s!

Nobody said the armed forces were being "broken" in 1993 by normal peacetime attrition; yet today, at the same relative cost to our national strength, it's called a quagmire for a military that's stretched to the breaking point.

But, it's indistinguishable from peacetime of recent history.

And compared to REAL wars, it's not even close!

The OTHER key point is to note that therefore, the vaunted "insurgency", by itself, is really no more effective than accidents alone already cost us.

Yes, that's in addition to the baseline rate, but isn't it astonishing that despite their best conscious efforts , they can only cost us as much as blind bad luck already does?

So stop wobbling!


Blogger LBBP said...

Hello, thank you also for your visit to Skeptic Rant.

I can't really argue with the notion that judging the war effort purely on fatality numbers is inappropriate or at least inaccurate. I also agree that to back out of Iraq now without a clear exit strategy would make the whole endeavor pointless. For myself the war was an ill conceived notion from the beginning but now we are stuck with it. I did read your "A War to Be Proud Of" post. I found that none of your justifications constituted a valid reason that I could be proud of. They sounded more like pseudo reasonable excuses only. But, as I said, we are stuck with it now so we need to see it through and get out of it as quickly as possible.

That said, I also disagree to a certain extent with your assertion that a failure to recognize the accidental peacetime casualty numbers constitutes justification to ignore combat casualties. Having a trained and ready military is a requirement. There are times when it is right and appropriate to use force. The mission in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a good example. Nobody seriously expects soldiering to be anything less than dangerous work. When considering loss of life, it would be more accurate to look at only the combat deaths and not the accidental deaths in Iraq. It would also be reasonable to suggest that the accidental deaths in Iraq would have happened anywhere even in peacetime, but the combat fatalities can only be attributed to the war itself. If one feels that the war is a waste of resources then the death of those soldiers becomes a waste as well no matter how you count them.

My post mentioning your original article was really just meant to show one example of how statistics can be misinterpreted. To me arguments about specific losses in Iraq are really not the point. The total cost of the war needs to be compared to the total benefits. In this regard I find that the total benefit does not out way the total cost in lives, material, bad PR, and dollars.


5:57 PM, September 05, 2005  
Blogger RDS said...


I appreciate your comments.

It's good to be reminded now and then that people with a viewpoint skeptical of mine might actually be reading this blog!

-- The Ten O'Clock Scholar

9:17 PM, September 06, 2005  

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