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Those Military Death Statistics

| 27 Comments | 1 TrackBack
Proud Kaffir over at criticizes MSM reporting about military deaths, earning an Instalanche today.
Even during the (per MSM) utopic peacetime of Bill Clinton's term, we lost 4302 service personnel. H.W. Bush and Reagan actually lost significantly more personnel while never fighting an extensive war, much less a simulaltaneous war on two theaters (Iraq and Afghanistan). Even the dovish Carter lost more people duing his last year in office, in 1980 lost 2392, than W. has lost in any single year of his presidency. (2005 figures are not available but I would wager the numbers would be slightly higher than 2004.) In 2004, more soldiers died outside of Iraq and Afghanistan than died inside these two war zones (900 in these zones, 987 outside these zones). The reason is that there are usually a fair number that die every year in training accidents, as well as a small number of illness and suicide. Yet the MSM would make you think that US soldiers are dying at a high number in these zones, and at a significantly higher number than in past years or under past presidents. This is all simlpy outright lies and distortion.
Unfortunately, this analysis is flawed in several ways, as the following graph shows.

Occasional WOC contributor Captain Midnight took a moment to review Proud Kaffir's numbers, The Captain writes, "He is citing raw absolute numbers. They are the result of two things: A 27% drop in the size of the armed forces, and a 54% drop in the death rate from accidents. If you plot the death rate per 100,000 and break it out by cause of death, you get

US Military Deaths, 1980-2004
(click to view full size: 1138×778)

As the Captain notes, the graph clearly shows a decrease in deaths due to accidents and a significant upsurge in deaths per 100,000 troops due to hostilities.

Misuse of statistics is tendentious no matter what the position being defended.

UPDATE: Belont Club comments.

1 TrackBack

Tracked: March 27, 2006 12:01 PM
The final word on casualty stats from GZ Expat, Part II
Excerpt: Winds of Change has the final word on the casualty stats that I published earlier...He is citing raw absolute numbers. They are the result of two things: A 27% drop in the size of the armed forces, and a 54% drop in the death rate from accidents. As th...


That's a good point. Interestingly though, Captain Midnight's graph shows that we are now losing about the same number of people per hundred thousand that we were losing to non-combat causes at the end of the Carter administration, with a lower number of total deaths.

In deciding whether that's "worth it", somebody might do a chart showing Iraqi deaths over the same period. Right at the start you can put the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed when Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. (Not to mention more than million dead Iranians.)

Doubters can then compare that to the number of Iraqis dying now, and explain a) why the Iraqis were better off Ba'athist and b) exactly how much less an Iraqi life is worth compared to an American life.

I think the term "misuse of statistics" is too strong. One could argue that the issue is absolute numbers of deaths. I would bet it is the absolute numbers for the people who have to break the news to the families. Proud Kaffir's point is that current losses (in a cause which is extremely important for the security of the United States) are roughly on a par with losses in several recent peace-time administrations when the losses were arguably harder to bear. Note that by harder to bear I mean that while every one of the deaths represented in the graph is tragic and lamentable, there is a difference between death in an action that brings closer the soldier's goal (freedom and safety for his country) vs. death that has no consequence for his country's status. This isn't misuse of statistics - it's a disagreement with you about what is important in the numbers.

But here's another way to look at it. Suppose that the US armed forces had been cut back to 100,000 men and that only 500 of them had been killed in the Iraq war. That death rate per 100,000 would have been much greater than the actual current rate - but it would have been a substantially better situation for us (setting aside any other consequences of reduction in strength).

Meanwhile, one of Instapundit's readers pointed out the rate issue but then had this comment today:

"Looking at those numbers, it appears that the Iraq, Afghanistan wars have resulted in an increase of 885 dead over what could have been expected through normal garrison operations in Bush II’s first term. That is not too bad when you consider that Bush has liberated two countries and fought a prolonged insurgency in both and that America lost over 1,000 dead in taking Vichy French North Africa in 1942 (that was before we even so much as fired a shot at the Germans)."

True enough, and I'm sympathetic to the point Proud Kaffir is trying to make.

Nonetheless, comparing absolute numbers is misleading when the aggregate total population has changed. It's one of those sleights of hand that drives me up a wall when the MSM do it without acknowledging that they are doing it - as Proud Kaffir also failed to mention clearly.

But to your point about psychological impact, I think that most people accept accidents more easily than the loss of a loved one due to a conscious choice on the part of the leadership UNLESS they agree with you that the cause is worth it. And in that sense I don't find PK's argument particularly convincing. How one views those numbers will depend on that original judgement about whether we should have been in that combat situation in the first place, and whether we should stay.

I support our presence in Iraq - but many clearly do not, and PK's numbers are unlikely to make much impact on even the open-minded people in the latter category.


Nonetheless, comparing absolute numbers is misleading when the aggregate total population has changed. It's one of those sleights of hand that drives me up a wall when the MSM do it without acknowledging that they are doing it - as Proud Kaffir also failed to mention clearly.

Strictly speaking the rate and absolute numbers can each be misleading, and neither is entirely adequate to give a proper picture of what's going on. As a general rule you standardize based on percentages if you want to compare similar situations that have a few known differences. For instance you can compare the lethality of wars by standardizing across time periods. But obviously the magnitude of the wars is also important, both from the perspective of raw resources and from the perspective of the impact on the cultures and societies involved. Small wars don't have the impact of large wars even if they're far more lethal.

I wouldn't necessarily accuse Proud Kaffir of deliberately misleading. It was probably just an oversight.

The contents of this post are, I am sure, true...

...but the point that folks in our camp (the pro-war camp, I mean) is that the number of Americans lost in combat is small enough to be lost in the reduction in training accidents over the last couple of decades.

And I think we can agree that the victims of accidents are casualties no different from any others; I have a friend who's a Marine and has spent the last six months rehabbing a C4-blasted hand, and he's hurt as a direct result of volunteering to serve just like anyone who was wounded in combat.

Thought it was a silly argument to make after initial face value.

Efficiency gains used to cover increased combat fatalities. Wrong comparison right off the bat.

Went in and fixed the graph. Should display more clearly to readers now, and it's clickable to get the full size version.

From 1980 to 2000, there's a basically steady rate of decline in all categories (with some noticeable spikes, like the one associated with Gulf War I). Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton were all able to maintain basically the same rate of decline in military fatalities.

The above graph makes several things clear: Bush II has taken 4 years to completely erase the gains in troop mortality of the previous 20 years. Bush II has seen an increase in troop mortality every year of his first term. In addition to this yearly increase in the raw number, the rate of increase has gone up in 3 of the 4 years shown. No other president on the graph even has consecutive years of increased deaths, much less a year-on-year increase in growth rate.

That's true, but also deeply misleading, in that (as others have said) fatalities are tied to mission.

No other President on the graph has had to deal with 9/11 and other planned attacks of that magnitude.

One might argue that if Clinton had allowed the military to deal with, say, Somalia upfront, at the cost of some small number of potential casualties, we either would have deterred 9/11 or dealt with Iraq et al in ways that increased their casualties significantly while protecting our troops from close-up attacks. We do have that capacity ... but whether we use it is a question of the mission.

So I find your argument tendentious and misleading too.

By the way, Captain Midnight agrees with Demosophist and others on the usual metrics for war casualties, but more than anything agrees with Danking's point: the comparison is virtually useless FOR EITHER SIDE as it stands.

The left never care, and couldn't give a squat now about Americans being killed in the military. Not once, in decades did the left write about any particular years deaths. You never, ever, saw even a small wire service article, way way back in the paper about a particular years death. But the press and the left are all hot and bothered now. Anything to attack President Bush. The soldiers being killed, wounded, fighting are just tools for the left.

Oh, yeah, I forgot. The left supports the troops.

The statistic I would find most interesting would be the number of dead American civilians on 9/11 versus the number of dead American military post 9/11 in Afghanistans and Iraq compared to the same numbers say in World War II. Like fire-fighters, soldiers are recruited, trained and equipped to put their life on the line. While we mourn the death of every brave fire-fighter, we don't feel guilty about it. Of course the issue of whether or not there was a "fire" in Iraq is hotly debated, but those of us who truly believe, like President Bush, that there was a fire should not be viewed as soldier killers. If we are considered so, then anyone who supports a standing army should be held responsible for all the accidental/suicidal deaths that occur in peace time. That would leave only the Quakers free of moral taint. Karen

And in my estimation, they would bear some moral responsibility for failing to extend care and protection to those who are unable to do that for themselves.

Pacifism ultimately is not free of moral responsibility for the results of violence, IMO. In a perfect world, perhaps - but not in the world we live in.

Numbers, numbers, numbers.

The active component and reserve [federal and NG] have a ceiling set by Congress. So numbers vary depending upon authorizations for a specific fiscal year or use of emergency authority for mobilization. The Army downsized in the post-Vietnam era from over a million to 750,000 up until the Gulf War. Even before that operation was initiated, Congress had already begun cutting the force authorization. During the Clinton years the active Army was reduced to 482,000. When the reduction began, DoD and DA wanted to proportionately reduce reserve forces. However, political interests of both the National Guard Bureau, governors, and Congressional delegates obstructed that plan. As a consequence money and resources had to be shuffled from active components to reserve components. The downturn you see in casualties around 1999 is because active duty training and operational tempo dropped markedly because the active component was starved of resources. Sitting around in the cantonment certainly reduces fatalities. Now while reserve units were on paper cost effective, they did not in general deliver the same level of skill and preparedness that active component units offered on a unit to unit comparison.

Since Congress determined that the reserve component would remain relative secure from cuts, DoD had no choice but to dig into its reserve force structure to support sustained military operations around the world. Therefore above the 482,000 active Army personnel numbers are the numbers of reserve personnel. The Army Reserve end-of-year strength was roughly 189,000 Soldiers, and the National Guard’s forces numbered about 333,200 [not all on active duty]. The reserve numbers would not be substantial in the 80s or 90s, but would be very much so in the WoT. In FY 2005 Congress finally got around to increasing the strength authorization of the Army by 20,000. About 10,000 were added without taking resources out of the line to increase the training base. So the question becomes, what numbers are you using? Are you just using the active duty numbers [482/492,000] or are you adding in the number above the authorized strength that constitutes the mobilized federal reserve and National Guard?

You are missing the point.

The point is to disprove the media and LLL’s propaganda campaign that the current losses of today’s military are unacceptable and also un sustainable (the broken military idea).

The numbers prove that
A) Our current losses are more than sustainable even common
B) Our military will not be broken by such small losses
C) We can hold such losses for decades if necessary without breaking our ability.

The LLL’s and the Media use our casualty numbers to portray our war effort as “to expensive” “is it worth it” “unsustainable” these are myths and lies that should be debunked. These numbers prove them as what they are propaganda.

If we allow the LLL’s and the Media to set the bar so high that it makes War impossible to execute we are doomed to defeat after defeat with war as an impossible idea (what they want). If a nation can no longer take casualties even battle defeats and mistakes in war then it matters not how powerful its military tech is it is a dead nation that is simply in waiting to be conquered.

In business life and even war expectations must be realistic and casualties in Iraq are lower than what could be expected by historical comparison, to allow that to be declared unacceptable is unrealistic and makes war impossible. We cannot allow the LLL’s set the bar at unrealistic unachievable levels.

The fact that there can be any confusion at all between combat and non-combat deaths strongly suggest that combat deaths are not significant. No one argues that more people in the service do not die as a result of the current war but they do argue that the level of deaths is fantastically low given the scope of the operations which is true.

Some people are seriously advancing the argument that the US, which produces nearly a third of the planetary GNP and has a population of 300 million, cannot sustain a military operation that results in less than 5 deaths a day on average. Clearly this is not true.

The graph is still a little misleading because of the way you've connected yearly average data points with straight lines. For example, a discrete event such as the 1993 terrorist bombing of the Marine barraks in Lebanon shows up as a continuous event spread out from 1992 to 1994. A similar artifact can be seen in combat fatalities around 1991 and 2002.

It would be better to present this data with a bar chart with a single bar per year.

Whoops, I meant the 1983 Lebanon bombing.

I have rarely argued that deaths will dehabilitate this mission, and the media trying to give the war 'a hook' they can sell, has done a misservice by advertising it as such; because the army has recently done an excellent job of minimizing casualties.

Instead,I think the greatest threat to the military comes in three groups:

1)Physical or psychological injury leading to a loss of service. Physical injuries that end enlistment have been lower than I would expect, mostly due to modern medicine. However psychological injuries are showing up more often than in previous wars. It is beleived this is because of the sudden nature of insurgent attacks, or because of brain trauma from IED's. It could also be a better diagnosis now than during vietnam.

2) Lower enlistments, lower quality officers at training, some lower retention. We've already had this argument here, but I do think that the lower quality of recruits may be a serious issue especially in the National Gaurd. Retention, although not a problem yet, may be in the near future. Take for example, this stars & stripes poll:
"How likely is it that you will stay in the military after your current obligation is complete?" on the questionnaire given to servicemembers in Iraq:

Very likely: 18%
Likely: 13%
Possible: 18%
Not likely: 17%
Very unlikely: 32%
Other: 2%
According to this poll, best case scenario is that 50% will stay

3) Lowering retention of NCO's. As the article above suggests, NCO's are the backbone of our military. I saw an article before that indicated this was a problem, but I can't find it now. Can you get stats on NCO reenlistment now vs. over the last 15 years?

All of these things hurt the national gaurd the most, which has had the least training, and the fewest resources while working in Iraq. National gaurd enlistment was 5,000 short of recruitment goals last year.

This doesn't even get into spending problems, which will arise in the next 5-10 years due to the cost of this war.

The point I was trying to make is that while Clinton's early first term numbers may be similar in magnitude to Bush II's early first term numbers, the two samples are pulled from fundamentally different contexts. Clinton was catching and continuing on a downward trend given to him by his predecessors. Bush II, on the other hand, has made policy decisions that have directly influenced the military mortality rate. I made no value statements as to whether or not Bush's policy decisions are justified, I was simply agreeing with Robin, that the original assertion by Red State, that Bush II's and Clinton's number are remarkably similar, is misleading, because it ignores the context of those numbers.

In the hypothetical scenario where Bush II's first term were peace time with an extrapolated military mortality rate of 35 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, would we blame Clinton's policies for the relatively staggering 65 lives in 100,000 that were lost in 1993? Based on the more or less constantly diminishing trend line extending all the way back to 1980, that would be absurd. Context matters.

I would like to congratulate this site for this post.

I have sometimes expressed exasperation with this site.

The willingness to criticize, on methodological grounds, an arguement thats supportive of ones own position is all too rare in the blogosphere (and the MSM too). That you have done so adds to the credibility of this site. Its one of the reasons i keep coming back here.

Thanks, liberalhawk. That's what WOC aims for - clearheaded discussion of important current issues.

BTW, would it surprise you all to know that "Captain Midnight" supports our presence in Iraq? It shouldn't. The single most important contribution that analysts can make to our military is objective, methodologically sound extraction of valuable information from detailed data, and clarity about why misleading inferences are misleading.

Alchemist, re: NCO retainment, I've seen some recent numbers on that but don't have them to hand right now.

Shannon and C-low, I support the points you want to make and I think the data supports them - and I think would do so with greater depth if the comparisons were made to casualty rates in other counterinsurgency operations. Unfortunately, that's not a simple task, since the situation today is vastly different from other counterinsurgencies in many ways, including military structure and doctrine, technologies and medical care, among other factors, not to mention the unique characteristics of this particular part of the WOT. I suspect such analysis are being done or will be done by those with more expertise than I in such things.

OTOH Proud Kaffir's comparisons across presidencies are a bit shakier, however, for the reasons listed above. A full analysis that would support such comparisons would be a very large project and would build on reams of much more detailed data across many dimensions, as Jason and others have hinted. Fortunately, to make the points you want to make, that's not necessary IMO.

It might be of some value to gather data on the casualties sustained between warring Islamicist and other terror groups, for instance, or those inflicted on civilians by such groups, and compare that to the casualty rate of our troops involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. But again, I know just enough about such studies to realize how ill-equipped I am to design and execute one.


Overwork and excessive deployments adversely affect retention rates. Military casualties to date in the war on terror are minimal and in no way affect military capability.

Army fatality and overall casualty rates per capita from vehicle accidents on on off duty annually throughout the period between the Korean and Vietnam Wars probably exceeded total per capita loss rates from all causes per year in the period 2003-2006. Military accidental death rates, particularly from vehicle accidents, were astronomical in the period between the Korean War and the Vietnam War. My oldest brother was one of them.

This statistical anlysis include members of the guard and reserve...? Guy needs a new graph, that includes guard and reserve..AND THE number wounded. There are a lot more people getting killed and hurt in the Armed Forces today than there were pre 9/11. Stat is so bogus on so many levels.. thanks for another revealing look at the attempted slants from the neocons. Just remember, it is all the fault of the "liberal media"...all the bad news coming out of Iraq!

If you read the graph heading, you will see that the chart is based on "full time equivalents". In other words, it counts reserve and national guard member actual days served during the year, which is the appropriate metric when combining both full time active duty and not full time guard and reservists.

BTW, this "guy" who made the chart is a PhD in applied math and has some expertise in accurate, neutral analysis of quantitative data.

And as far as "slants" go, yours is pretty obvious. As I said above, it's quite difficult to compare stats meaningfully across conflicts. Wounded vs. killed is a good example of why -- we simply have both equipment and medical means to keep people alive in ways that were unthoughtof in Vietnam or earlier wars.

Moreover, we also have prosthetic and other rehabilitative means. That does not in any way diminish real suffering and loss. But when we have people with prosthetic legs not only competing in long races but insisting on -- and being ABLE TO -- return to elite military units, a simplistic count of wounded becomes misleading on the face of it, as well.

Sorry, you can't legitimately slant this one your way.

Nobody cares about 'percentages of those who died' until someone wants the numbers on his side. Did anyone ever figure the percentage of those killed in the twin towers out of the total leased-space occupancy? No, the absolute number of dead is what counts in war, famines, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc.; and we have been skillful/fortunate/lucky enough to have a relatively low casualty count in a two front war. Most notably recently, this relative 'sucess' over three years led at least one media outlet to complain about the advanced stage of medical treatment in the military, and how this can 'mask' what the casualty count really should be! God forbid we say anything good about ourselves. Pathetic.

09 June, 2007

Just "stumbled" onto your article and discussion today. Remarkable! Really. Because an argument I make when I get into conversations with people expousing their lament at our military casualties is that statistically, how low the losses are historically speaking. Particularly given the scope and scale of current operations.

So many people are so tragically ignorant of our own history and our military, it's appalling! I often remind them that on the onset of this war (meaning the invasion of Iraq, since most don't have a way to get their heads around a "worldwide war on terror"); we rolled into that country, defeated and demoralized its armed forces and toppled it's government in about 3 and 1/2 weeks! Our casualties were, by any military standard, phenominally low. Compare that I tell them, with a single battle of WWII, like Iwo Jima for instance. The Japanese island defenders were outnumbered, without supply and incapable of reinforcement and they still gave us a pasting resulting in somewhere in the neighborhood of 7700 KIA and WIA in the first 72 hours! It's a lack of perspective at the heart of the thing.

However this narrow "now" view is spoonfed, intentionally I wager, by the media at large and the liberal left's hunger to discredit the need for the "war", the motives of an administration they loath and the dire consequences military failure will bring. All in their pursuit of imposing a socialist state in place of our republican form of democracy. Their "crocodile tears" over troop deaths frankly make me sick.

Why? Well I'll tell you. I served more than 21 years for this country, and in those years I can count more than forty shipmates killed - people I actually knew. Plane crashes, flightdeck mishaps, equipment malfunctions and just plain stupid accidents... no matter the reasons, they died in service to the country. And you know how much the left cared? Zip-point-shit. But I cried, I can tell you that. Yes, it's perspective. If you're a person raised to think military service is second-rate, an anachronism to a barbaric past - and that you're somehow superior, more socially concientious, and more "evolved"; and people who don't believe all you believe are someway retarded, or at least limited; you use their deaths as fodder for your agenda. Every death you tout is a functional part of the foundation you're building for your "kollective" for mankind. The aim of making this fight unpopular relies upon death. The left has insinuated itself into the fabric of the media, popular culture and education to a degree that no cause promoting the past and present form of United States representative government is allowed to occur without dissent, rancor and distortion. Hell, most of the people I've spoken with who bemoan the losses of our troops, either haven't served themselves, don't know a "troop", haven't a family member serving or even know a family who has suffered a loss due to this or any other conflict.

It's practically "Pavlovian"! Say "war" and they knee-jerk back "poor G.I.s, oh how sorry I am for them." And it's crap.

The bottom line is simple. Just to maintain an armed force at the quality and quantitive level we do, requires intensive training and preparation. It involves danger, it's a part of the job. People have, do and will always die. Whether it's a training, operational accident or combat doesn't matter. It's the price of freedom. The old adage says "statistics lie, and liars use statistics" is especially apropos to this war. The opponents are adept and great facilitators of statistics for their own purposes. Keep up the good work of putting honest perspective to these deaths, because somewhere there has to be counter-point and honesty.

Thank you. My bonafides to follow:

Chief T.
U.S.N. '72-'93
Vietnam, the "Cold" War, Operation Deepfreeze, Desert Storm, Southern Watch and a half-dozen others via;
NTC San Diego, CA
U.S.S. Anchorage LSD-36
U.S.S. America CVA-66
U.S.S. Enterprise CVAN-65
U.S.S. Kittyhawk CVA-63
NATTC Millington, TN
NAS Miramar, CA
NAS Oceana, VA
NAS Fallon, NV

I wonder how the use of contracted services has changed the fundamental make-up of the military. When I served from 1963-68 I don't recall having civilians in the combat zone as we have today. I have read we have more than 100,000 civilian contractors in Iraq and that contractors have suffered more than 1000 casualties.

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