Today, the NY Times has the first part of a special series - War Torn:Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles. It appears that the troops are coming home and becoming murderers.
Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories. Lakewood, Wash.: "Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife." Pierre, S.D.: "Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress." Colorado Springs: "Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring."
Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.
The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment - along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems - appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.
And we're presented with a litany of tragedy.
But as usual, I keep asking the simple question - well, what does it mean? How do these 121 murderers compare with the base rate of murderers in the population?
And the answer appears to be damn well.
The only reference I could find for the number of troops who have served in combat areas was at GlobalSecurity.com, citing a Salon article:
Three and a half years have passed since U.S. bombs started falling in Afghanistan, and ever since then, the U.S. military has been engaged in combat overseas. What most Americans are probably unaware of, however, is just how many American soldiers have been deployed. Well over 1 million U.S. troops have fought in the wars since Sept. 11, 2001, according to Pentagon data released to Salon. As of Jan. 31, 2005, the exact figure was 1,048,884, approximately one-third the number of troops ever stationed in or around Vietnam during 15 years of that conflict.
From the October 1, 2001 start of the Afghanistan war, that's about 26,000 troops/month. To date (Jan 2008) that would give about 1.99 million.
That means that the NY Times 121 murders represent about a 7.08/100,000 rate.
Now the numbers on deployed troops are probably high - fewer troops from 2001 - 2003; I'd love a better number if someone has it.
But for initial purposes, let's call the rate 10/100,000, about 40% higher than the calculated one.
Now, how does that compare with the population as a whole?
Turning to the DoJ statistics, we see that the US offender rate for homicide in the 18 - 24 yo range is 26.5/100,000.For 25 - 34, it's 13.5/100,000.
See the problem?
Damn, is it that hard for reporters and their editors to provide a little bit of context so we can make sense of the anecdotes? It's not in Part 1 of the article. And I'll bet it won't be in the future articles, either.
Because it's not part of the narrative of how our soldiers are either depraved or damaged.
The NY Times Public Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.