Death Rates Again

by Kieran Healy on August 27, 2006

It’s depressing to see a professor of demography pull this sort of stunt in the Washington Post:

Between March 21, 2003, when the first military death was recorded in Iraq, and March 31, 2006, there were 2,321 deaths among American troops in Iraq. Seventy-nine percent were a result of action by hostile forces. Troops spent a total of 592,002 “person-years” in Iraq during this period. The ratio of deaths to person-years, .00392, or 3.92 deaths per 1,000 person-years, is the death rate of military personnel in Iraq. … One meaningful comparison is to the civilian population of the United States. That rate was 8.42 per 1,000 in 2003, more than twice that for military personnel in Iraq.

What a joke. Note that the authors (Samuel H. Preston and Emily Buzzell) actually compare the crude death rate for the entire population of the United States to that of U.S. service personnel in Iraq. Who knew so many people died in America from every conceivable cause every day? There ought to be a law.

Preston and Buzzell go on to say,

The comparison is imperfect, of course, because a much higher fraction of the American population is elderly and subject to higher death rates from degenerative diseases. The death rate for U.S. men ages 18 to 39 in 2003 was 1.53 per 1,000—39 percent of that of troops in Iraq.

For “imperfect” here read “completely inappropriate,” or “dumber than a can of Cheez Wiz.” They continue:

But one can also find something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil. The death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia was 4.37 per 1,000 in 2002, 11 percent higher than among troops in Iraq. Slightly more than half the Philadelphia deaths were homicides.

Inevitably, people like Glenn Reynolds see numbers like this and—instead of thinking “Christ, inner city homicide rates are even remotely comparable to military deaths in Iraq!”—think, hey, “it’s hard to look at these numbers and see the catastrophe” that the mainstream media report on.

Look, it’s a well-known fact about the sociology of combat that even in a real, live, shooting war, only a comparatively small number of troops in an army ever see direct, front-line duty—if only because the number of people it takes to sustain those who do go out to the front line, or its equivalent, is very large. (Don’t get me wrong: many of those in support roles will face real dangers, too, and their lives will be very far from normal—it’s just that we’re talking about death rates here.) In fact, even amongst the front-line troops, exposure is more focused and limited than you might think. A similar thing is true of bombing campaigns in built-up areas, such as the recent one in the Lebanon. An awful lot of bombs can be dropped and an awful lot of buildings destroyed, and the deaths will be fewer than you might think. But that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous, or completely dysfunctional. Who would think to say, “Hey, a bunch of buildings were destroyed by the bombing and hundreds died, but that’s fewer people per capita than will die of heart disease this quarter”?

This is why comparisons to death rates in civilian settings—even comparatively violent ones—are misguided. Anyone who thinks that someone walking around Philly is more likely to be violently attacked than a marine out on patrol in Baghdad is out of their mind. Moreover, troops on patrol are kitted out with protective gear, travel in well-organized groups, and have guns. And yet they still die in large numbers. Crude comparisons of death rates across very different settings mask big differentials in exposure to violent incidents, ignore fundamental differences in the structure of those incidents, and—in the case of military fatalities—ignore the huge improvements in field medicine that (according to data for 2004) allowed the ratio of wounded to killed soldiers in Iraq to be more than two and a half times what it was in Vietnam. Bear in mind, too, that all of what I’ve said so far ignores the elephant in the room, which is that the death rates in the article refer exclusively to U.S. forces on active duty in the whole of Iraq and not to regular Iraqi civilians. Contrary to what you may have heard, these people are not magically immune to the effects of car bombs, death squads, or suicide bombers.

While such comparisons are basically misguided, Preston and Buzzell would have been better off calculating the standardized death rate for police officers in the U.S. as a whole and comparing that number to U.S. military deaths across the whole of Iraq. (Alternatively, they could have looked at violent death rates for civilians in Baghdad and compared that number to Philadelphia’s inner city, but I doubt the data are available, precisely because Baghdad is such a disaster area.) Here’s a quick estimate for the case of law enforcement. The BLS says that there are about 624,000 “Police and sheriff’s patrol officers” in the United States, not counting detectives, supervisors or other staff. In 2004, OSHA reports that 121 officers died in the line of duty, with 66 dying in some kind of road accident and 48 dying in assaults or other violent acts. So this ratio of 121 to 624,000—0.000193—gives us a rate of 0.193 deaths per 1,000 for 2004. Being a police officer is not an easy job, yet (you should not by now be surprised to learn) the line-of-duty death rate is an order of magnitude lower than the overall U.S. death rate of 8.42 per thousand cited by Preston and Buzzell, to say nothing of the 3.92 per 1,000 they calculate for U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

All of my own caveats apply to using the number I just calculated to assess the seriousness of military death rates in Iraq. As I’ve said before, the acid test is quite straightforward. Would you—can you?—take a commercial flight to Baghdad tomorrow, get a taxi from the airport to the city, stay at a local hotel, see some sights and eat out at a decent restaurant without being in fear of your life? What about Philadelphia? (I’ll grant a cheesesteak exception on the fear-for-your-life part.) This test would have been passed by cities like Derry or Belfast for almost all of the period between 1970 to the present, so it’s not even a very high bar. I doubt that Preston and Buzzell are packing their bags for Baghdad, their own calculations on comparative death rates notwithstanding.

Update: Since I drafted this, Reynolds has gotten a telling-off from someone he’ll listen to—his correspondent makes more or less the same points I make here. Scott Lemieux has more, too.

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They’d Rather Be in Philadelphia § Unqualified Offerings
08.28.06 at 6:57 am

{ 105 comments }

1

save_the_rustbelt 08.27.06 at 11:26 pm

I think a better comparison would be against the same age groupings – but at any rate this sort of idiotic statistic crunching can’t make the funerals any less painful.

Saw a figure somewhere today, there are 62000+ soldiers who have “major” injuries (the actual news report may have said serious or some other descriptive classification).

Many of them will pay the price for the remainder of their lives.

2

Jim Johnson 08.27.06 at 11:36 pm

The authors cleverly note that:

“The comparison is imperfect, of course, because a much higher fraction of the American population is elderly and subject to higher death rates from degenerative diseases. The death rate for U.S. men ages 18 to 39 in 2003 was 1.53 per 1,000 — 39 percent of that of troops in Iraq. But one can also find something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil. The death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia was 4.37 per 1,000 in 2002, 11 percent higher than among troops in Iraq. Slightly more than half the Philadelphia deaths were homicides.”

But lets think now (hard as that may seem). If we were not at war (unjustifiabaly in my view) the specific deaths the authors are minimizing would be 100% avoidable. But set that aside. Are we supposed to find it comforting that young African American men die at astronomical rates in our major cities? Or should we be realy, really pissed thata we ae wasting money on a war instead of cleaning up our domestice war zones? This is pathetic.

3

bi 08.27.06 at 11:42 pm

What’s it with people who say ‘yes, my methodology sucks, but I’m still right’?

4

nick s 08.28.06 at 12:06 am

Inevitably, people like Glenn Reynolds see numbers like this and—instead of thinking “Christ, inner city homicide rates are even remotely comparable to military deaths in Iraq!”—think, hey, “it’s hard to look at these numbers and see the catastrophe” that the mainstream media report on.

For which the test is a choice of two holiday destinations for Labor Day, and no alternative: the black neighbourhoods of Philly or downtown Baghdad. Let’s see which Prof Ernest T. Bass picks.

5

Guest 08.28.06 at 12:20 am

It’s a well-known fact that the death rates due to old age of active-duty soliders in Iraq are among the lowest in the world. Ergo, serving in Iraq actually *increases life expectancy*. Don’t you people know anything about statistics?

6

nick s 08.28.06 at 12:24 am

Oh, fuck Insty: even after showing the micro-cojones to quote the Philly native in Iraq he decides that one of his instapals — the eminently fuckwitted Dean Esmay — deserves the last word. What a complete tool.

7

Guest 08.28.06 at 12:25 am

And here’s another thing you smarty-pantses didn’t know: our boys’ death rates during the invasion and conquest of Canada were almost 30% lower than the death rates among inner-city Detroit residents aged 19-26. Therefore, invading Canada was a good idea. How does it feel to get schooled twice in a row, suckahs?

8

gerry 08.28.06 at 12:32 am

And clearly a hospital operating theatre is the worst possible place to be if you have, say, a gaping chest wound. The deaths-per-thousand-person-years in those places are just crazy

9

Thomas 08.28.06 at 12:59 am

Kieran helpfully points to the “well known” facts of military sociology (reminding me a bit of a high school debater who can’t find the evidence card he’s looking for) without noting what the article actually says:

“The death rate of American troops in Vietnam was 5.6 times that observed in Iraq.”

There’s a comparison to a military setting, isn’t it? What’s wrong with it?

Or is that comparison also meaningless, because who wouldn’t rather go to Saigon than to Bahgdad (especially in August!)?

The article is an interesting one, and, in case people don’t click through, doesn’t take a position on the war or how well things are going at all. That some ideologically motivated professor somewhere misinterprets or overreads it isn’t the fault of the authors.

10

Zeno 08.28.06 at 1:18 am

The Washington Post of yesterday is gone, replaced by an irresponsible rag. How sad. I’d expect this sort of thing from the conspicuously dishonest right-wing press, like the death count gimmick recently perpetrated by WorldNetDaily. Did you know that U.S. troop deaths in Iraq have been dropping in number for several consecutive months? The writer, Melanie Morgan of KSFO, included the count for August, even though the month had several days to go, just to make her claim work. The day after she published her column, her claim was already untrue. Liars and truth-twisters.

11

John Quiggin 08.28.06 at 1:51 am

““The death rate of American troops in Vietnam was 5.6 times that observed in Iraq.

There’s a comparison to a military setting, isn’t it? What’s wrong with it?”

Umm, the fact that the US lost that war?

12

JP 08.28.06 at 2:26 am

Thomas, Kieran specifically deals with your point in his post. You could have avoided making a fool out of yourself if you had only, say, done a Ctrl-F on “Vietnam”.

13

JP 08.28.06 at 2:26 am

Back on topic, isn’t the author respected in the field? What the heck happened?

14

agm 08.28.06 at 2:44 am

And given that we regularly compare inner city gang violence to that found in war zones, exactly what is wrong with using it for comparison?

The word you’re looking for is “Nothing”. And really, given that the authors are trying to make a point, you should be criticizing their point more than their rhetorical device.

15

bi 08.28.06 at 2:58 am

And exactly what’s wrong with suggesting that the death rate of civilians in a US city with gang violence is meaningfully comparable with the death rate of soldiers in Iraq, even though Kieran already attacked that?

The word you’re looking for is “boatloads”.

16

James Wimberley 08.28.06 at 4:58 am

bi: But young blacks in inner-city Philly are all soldiers in drug gangs, didn’t you know?

17

Guest 08.28.06 at 5:26 am

If the soldiers didn’t go to Iraq, they would have been shooting each other on the streets, and more of them would have died. So, the authors were actually talking about class issues in the military.

Subtle, huh!

18

aaron 08.28.06 at 6:01 am

What’s the point of this post? I got about halfway through and had to stop because it was so vacuous.

“Demographics of soldiers aren’t the same of the entire US. Combat life is different than normal life. These numbers aren’t directly comparable…” Don’t they mention that in the articles? Why is knowing other deathrates than combat deathrate so innappropriate? They’re not doing a technical analysis, just providing perspective.

Your post is much more offensive than their virtual offense. Kieren, you are much better than this crap you just wrote. What they did is such a non-offense, it’s embarrassing that you had such a strong reaction to it.

19

bi 08.28.06 at 6:23 am

aaron: “Don’t they mention that in the articles?”

Oh sure. They mention it, then they ignore it. That’s some perspective.

20

Marc 08.28.06 at 6:52 am

Aaron, the article by the original authors is an exercise in dishonest excuse making for a bloody war. It is also one of a long series of such articles. This war is already functionally invisible in the US by policy: we don’t see images of violence in Iraq. Our contemptable president, unlike all previous wartime presidents, can’t even be bothered to attend funerals here in the US. Even the coffins coming home are barred from having pictures taken. And for the latest Orwellian touch, we get treated to articles claiming that being a soldier in Iraq is no worse than living in (pick your favorite domestic setting). It’s despicable. War supporters shouldn’t be able to pretend that their fantasies are a video game.

21

Jesse 08.28.06 at 7:19 am

Kieran is absolutely right about the original article. But something seems very wrong with the actual numbers quoted. Take this: “One meaningful comparison is to the civilian population of the United States. That rate was 8.42 per 1,000 in 2003…”

I’m no demographer, so maybe I’m misreading this, but it seems like it can’t be right. If the U.S. had a perfectly even age distribution and everyone died on their 118th birthday, the death rate per 1,000 would be 8.47. I know life expectancies haven’t gotten that high. So how can this number be right? Is the age distribution so far from balanced? (I.e. if everyone lives to 70 but most of the population is currently under 30, the current death rate will be low.)

22

Thomas 08.28.06 at 7:30 am

JohnQ, I don’t see how the outcome in Vietnam is at all relevant to whether the comparison made is appropriate. What am I missing? This seems to be a different point from the one Kieran makes, so perhaps you can share what you have in mind.

JP, read the article and you’ll see that there’s good reason to think Kieran didn’t bother to read the entire article before spouting off (while I did suffer through his entire post). After all, the authors of the WaPost piece say “Part of the reduction in the death rate is attributable to improvements in military medicine and such things as the use of body armor. These have reduced the ratio of deaths to wounds from 24 percent in Vietnam to 13 percent in Iraq.” To make the same point, Kieran doesn’t quote this article based on current and cumulative information but instead reaches back to another WashPo article, from two years ago. (That article, interestingly enough, also makes comparisons between risks of serving in various wars (Iraq vs. Vietnam and Iraq vs. WWII), but Kieran doesn’t note that the calculation of the riskiness of Iraq has changed in the nearly two years since the article he likes was published. He also doesn’t note that the information he uses is outdated, based on the article he’s criticizing. Is he calling the authors of the current piece liars? Is there some other reason we should reject the current date offered in the article for the numbers from an article two years ago? I mean, other than political convenience or protecting people like marc from a confrontation with evidence?)

23

abb1 08.28.06 at 7:44 am

Isn’t it true, though, that the number of US military fatalities is surprisingly low? On average less than 2 killed and about 15 wounded by about a hunderd attacks a day. It is low. So, now what?

24

bi 08.28.06 at 7:52 am

Thomas: surely you didn’t “suffer through” this bit?

“…all of what I’ve said so far ignores the elephant in the room, which is that the death rates in the article refer exclusively to U.S. forces on active duty in the whole of Iraq and not to regular Iraqi civilians.”

So, Preston and Buzzell make a bogus comparison between military death rates in Iraq and civilian death rates in the US, but when they rope in a comparison between Vietnam and Iraq, the previous bogus comparison becomes un-bogus?

And if you want others to be charitable to your points, then you should be charitable to others’ points, instead of mud-slinging phrases like “ideologically motivated” or “political convenience”.

25

Kieran Healy 08.28.06 at 8:02 am

After all, the authors of the WaPost piece say “Part of the reduction in the death rate is attributable to improvements in military medicine and such things as the use of body armor. These have reduced the ratio of deaths to wounds from 24 percent in Vietnam to 13 percent in Iraq.” To make the same point, Kieran doesn’t quote this article based on current and cumulative information but instead reaches back to another WashPo article, from two years ago.

I read the whole thing, thomas. I linked to the older piece mostly because the effect of trauma care and body armor on the injury/death ratio is well-known, and has been for several years. Similarly, I have no objections to their numbers on the comparative death rates for different services within the military, etc, which were interesting. But the authors lead off with a couple of inappropriate comparisons that clearly suggest to the reader that U.S. military service in Iraq (and by extension life in Iraq generally, as Reynolds reaction clearly shows) is really not all that risky, in fact less risky than life in a big American city. My focus was on that.

26

Danny Yee 08.28.06 at 8:03 am

I can think of lots of reasons why Vietnam war death rates for US soldiers would have been higher than those in Iraq. Most obviously, improved medical support. Also, increased emphasis on “force protection” (was that term even around in 1970?).

And the NVA fielded divisions with field artillery and so forth – a step above platoon sized units using mortars and IEDs.

27

dsquared 08.28.06 at 8:25 am

Vietnam was a war with a lot of fighting in the field, while the casualties in Iraq are coming from low level insurgency. There is no Iraqi equivalent of Hamburger Hill.

28

P O'Neill 08.28.06 at 8:28 am

One wonders if perfesser Reynolds ever stops to think about the implications of a comparison of death rates of Americans from terrorism versus other risks in terms of the amount of time and money devoted to the GWOT relative to other government activities.

29

JR 08.28.06 at 8:29 am

“The death rate of American troops in Vietnam was 5.6 times that observed in Iraq.”

In Vietnam, the US was fighting the army of a foriegn government. In Iraq, we beat the only opposing government years ago. So who, exactly, are we fighting?

30

Thomas 08.28.06 at 8:36 am

Kieran, I’m afraid I don’t see your rationale. Your objection is that the authors piece ignores context, and you offer the death/wounded ratio as an example. But it’s an example that the authors address in their piece, so, again, I don’t see why you felt you had to reach outside their piece to address it. As for whether the comparisons to civilian life are inappropriate, you’ve made your point. I don’t see what’s inappropriate about the comparison at all, provided sufficient caveats and alternative comparisons are given (as I believe they are in this case).

Finally, as to what a reader should take away from this article, I don’t think a reasonable reader would take away from the article what you say they’d take. I also don’t think Glenn Reynold’s reacted as you say he did. The piece, as you note in the original post, doesn’t address ordinary Iraqis (that’s the elephant in the room), so I don’t think a reasonable reader would think it offers conclusions on how life in Iraq generally is.

31

Ray 08.28.06 at 8:58 am

So the article advances a startling comparison, and you’re defending it because it also includes all of the caveats that demonstrate the comparison is worthless?

32

Ray 08.28.06 at 9:02 am

And the article doesn’t in fact include all of those caveats, because it doesn’t distinguish between troops on patrol and troops servicing the motor pool.

33

Steve 08.28.06 at 9:03 am

…that clearly suggest to the reader that U.S. military service in Iraq (and by extension life in Iraq generally, as Reynolds reaction clearly shows) is really not all that risky, in fact less risky than life in a big American city. My focus was on that.

If an editorial in the popular press about global warming led off with shocking statistics that relied on this sort of innappropriate comparisons — median temperature in the United States versus in Europe, say, or peak summertime temperatures versus median year-round temperatures — the people defending the Post article would recognize it for an attempt to lie with statistics, even if useful information was contained further down the article.

34

Steve LaBonne 08.28.06 at 9:38 am

So the article advances a startling comparison, and you’re defending it because it also includes all of the caveats that demonstrate the comparison is worthless?

That’s a lovely trick, isn’t it? Imagine all the bizarre propositions you could “defend” that way, while counting on the inattentiveness of both average and partisan-hack readers to get the “conclusion” but not the caveats noticed.

35

Theron 08.28.06 at 9:54 am

Steve: Exactly. As Twain supposedly said, there are three kinds of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics. You would think the utter implausibility of the idea that being a soldier in Iraq was somehow safer than staying home would make people look twice at the data, but a lot of people just skim the headlines.

36

roger 08.28.06 at 10:04 am

The obvious question posed by the stats of American military deaths is whether there is connection between the comparative lack of American military fatalities and the way the Iraq war has been lost by the Americans. I’d argue there is.

The American way of fighting is to protect, with the massive advantages given by American technology, the American fighting man. This is a good strategy to win a conventional battle. But it is a bad strategy to win a guerilla war. Since the goal of the war was to occupy Iraq until the nation had reformed as an American ally, the tactics of the war had to be brought into line with that strategy. And that would mean minimizing collateral Iraqi casualties – that is, individuating Iraqi insurgents and killing or capturing them out of the general civilian population. But individuating those insurgents would significantly raise the level of hazard for American soldiers. The American military has opted, generally, not to do that – instead adopting a strategy like that revealed by the investigation of the Haditha murders. The American infliction of casualties on Iraqis is broadly permitted in order to protect every American soldier from harm; a policy that leads to re-inforcing the insurgency as more and more Iraqis have an incentive, given this policy, to join them or at least tacitly give them support. Add to this that the infliction of iraqi casualties by the Americans has no effect on the infliction of iraqi casualties by the insurgents, and you get a picture of why Americans have lost the war. It is like the police coming into a high crime neighborhood and killing random people in the neighborhood without ever lowering the crime rate.

I think Americans have essentially been irrelevant in Iraq – a sort of mercenary ethnic cleansing unit – since Najaf in 2004. It is interesting to see how they got to that point so quickly. The stats give us a paradox that is at the center of Amrican foreign policy: the Americans are at once the most aggressive nation in the world and the one with the lowest tolerance for American deaths. Hence, they are more apt to get into wars (severely underestimating the costs) that they then mismanage (trying to remain below a threshhold of casualties that divides their tactical means from their strategic ends). This goes a long way back in American history — Grant and McClellan still fight for the soul of the military, with the compromise being a McClellan like delicacy about American deaths combined with a Grant like ferocity in inflicting massive deaths on the enemy — and identifying the latter as victory. Of course, that isn’t victory at all.

37

loser 08.28.06 at 10:55 am

Thomas – I agree with you. I think there is a hyperbolic reaction going on here, and they aren’t really listening to you.

38

y81 08.28.06 at 11:10 am

I don’t see what’s wrong with the comparison of active duty soldiers and inner-city black males. Doesn’t this show that, in terms of life expectancy, you are better off being a soldier on active duty than a young urban black man? And isn’t that true? Of course, the odds are even worse if you are actually out on patrol, or if you are a street level drug dealer, but that doesn’t invalidate the more elementary–but less subjective–comparison.

Stepping back a little, this statistic gives us an accurate big picture. No one wants to fly to Baghdad, and, you know what?–no one, including lib/lab college professors, wants to go walking around downtown Detroit at night. Put another way, if you were a parent, and your son came home and told you that he was choosing between joining the military and working in an inner-city liquor store, you would, if intelligently guided by statistics, advise him to join the military.

39

Uncle Kvetch 08.28.06 at 11:27 am

if you were a parent, and your son came home and told you that he was choosing between joining the military and working in an inner-city liquor store, you would, if intelligently guided by statistics, advise him to join the military

“Joining the military” is not the same as “Serving a tour in Iraq,” y81. But you knew that already, didn’t you.

Keep on shovelin’.

40

roger 08.28.06 at 11:50 am

One other interesting thing to note about those stats — the stats of crimes in urban areas mark the results of a war, too. The war on drugs, upon which the interminable war on terrorism seems to be modeled. In the war on drugs, banning a health hazard leads to an explosion in deaths, jailings, and a larger circle of victims than just regulating sales of drugs would ever do. Typical state-as-perpetual-war solution – the state’s actions insure that the war will never end, as the object of it fades from sight. Among the little things one has to sacrifice to win the war is a host of freedoms, from our privacy to fair trials and sentences. And, of course, there is the political advantage of the wars: as the wars spectacularly fail, the braindead followers of the warmongers point to that failure to continue doing the same thing. Thus is created the economic miracle of a bankrupt policy profiting from its bankruptcy. The loaves and the fishes were nothin’ to that.

What the war on terrorism has done to downtown Baghdad, the war on drugs has done to downtown Detroit. Solution: stop the wars!

41

abb1 08.28.06 at 11:52 am

Also if you are 85 and your health is deteriorating fast – you should join the military to improve your chances. In addition to the Ghetto Brigade I imagine unstoppable Cancer Brigade. It’s perfect: they’ll defend our freedom and live longer, happier lives. I love the idea.

42

John Emerson 08.28.06 at 12:24 pm

This is an old argument. American journalism has learned the art of writing on two levels, so that if a smart person reads carefully they’ll get approximately the right idea, whereas if a less-smart person skims the article they’ll get the wrong idea.

This allows defenders to say “No one who read the article carefully would believe…..” But newspapers write for a diverse audience, and they’re responsibility is to accurately inform everyone.

Disinformation methods include: misleading headlines, burying the lede, burying the story (on Page 16 or whatever), balancing accurate information with ridiculous claims, and so on.

This is done because accurate writing often brings a well-organized Republican firestorm. “If the facts are partisan, print the facts” should be the rule, but the actual rule is “Don’t write stories that make the Republicans look bad”.

No, the Democrats don’t have that kind of rapid response intimidation team, though we’re working on it.

A lot of people within the media are partisan Republicans, often hired from Republican campaign operations. George Will, Pat Buchanan, Safire, Noonan, Brooks, Krauthammer, and too many others to name. Comparable ex-Democrats (Stephanopolous, Matthews, Estrich, et al) are notably NOT partisans. There are very few partisan Democrats or liberals in the major media. (A lot of the Times liberals, for example, trashed Clinton).

I think that it’s possible that this piece was mutilated by editors. Often the written and published pieces are different.

43

KCinDC 08.28.06 at 12:36 pm

Y81, aren’t parents concerned about effects other than death? Even if the risk of death is smaller in Iraq, the risk of being attacked and wounded is much greater. Those in the military survive attacks that would otherwise be fatal, because of armor and medical care, but that doesn’t me they emerge unscathed. I’d imagine parents would also like to consider the chances of losing a limb, suffering permanent brain damage, being paralyzed, being blinded, and so on, which are all surely much higher in Iraq.

44

Randy Paul 08.28.06 at 1:22 pm

Reynolds is such a dilettante. Why anyone takes him as a credible commentator is beyond me. The fact that he gets so much traffic is no more a sign of his erudition than the fact that flies love shit is a sign of the tastiness of excrement.

As Nick S notes, the fact that he quotes Dean Esmay shows just how desperate he is.

45

John Emerson 08.28.06 at 1:24 pm

Reynolds is a QWERTY. One of the first. He seems to have adapted to his winger readers, too.

46

Steve 08.28.06 at 1:26 pm

Its interesting how the conversation here follows the classic ‘stages of coping’ with loss.
First, in the original post, comes DENIAL: “This is why comparisons to death rates in civilian settings—even comparatively violent ones—are misguided. Anyone who thinks that someone walking around Philly is more likely to be violently attacked than a marine out on patrol in Baghdad is out of their mind.” (except, as the article states, with the particular subgroup-African American males of a certain age, in Philadelphia, it is correct). Then comes ANGER (“Oh, fuck Insty: even after showing the micro-cojones to quote the Philly native in Iraq he decides that one of his instapals—the eminently fuckwitted Dean Esmay—deserves the last word. What a complete tool.” Post #6. Notice that the post says virtually nothing. But it uses words like ‘fuck’ and ‘tool’-anger like this established legitimacy when real information doesn’t-anger is so authentic, man!). Then comes BARGAINING (“Similarly, I have no objections to their numbers on the comparative death rates for different services within the military, etc,…But the authors lead off with a couple of inappropriate comparisons” post #26, as well as several others). Then comes DEPRESSION (“The obvious question posed by the stats of American military deaths is whether there is connection between the comparative lack of American military fatalities and the way the Iraq war has been lost by the Americans.” post 37. I assume he’s unhappy that America has lost-this may be a presumptuous assumption. See also the original post “Its depressing to see a professor of demography…” and post #10 “The Washington Post of yesterday is gone, replaced by an irresponsible rag. How sad…”). Perhaps soon we will see the final stage of coping: ACCEPTANCE.

So, Thomas, Loser, and others who can’t understand what is going on; be understanding and realize they are dealing with the loss of a loved one, and you have to be patient; their dearly beloved, “QUAGMIRE,” is dying a slow and painful death.

Steve

47

Kieran Healy 08.28.06 at 1:38 pm

I guess your lot is permanently stuck at stage 1 then, Steve?

48

Yuri Guri 08.28.06 at 1:46 pm

If being a black man in America is more dangerous than fighting a war, why is it that people talk so much about the heroism of our troops? Shouldn’t there be SUVs riding around with the appropriate bumper stickers (e.g. “Support our Inner City Youth,” etc.)? After all, they face greater dangers and require a higher level of character and intelligence to survive and thrive. They would seem to be the true heroes, no? Perhaps the Republicans should stop glorifying American soldiers altogether and instead celebrate the simple courage of being a minority in America. Of course … that would require them to actually believe their propaganda, which I seriously doubt.

49

David Kane 08.28.06 at 1:50 pm

Kieran,

I would say that this post is not up to your usual standards. In particular, you do not make clear what an acceptable article would look like.

First, do you agree that it is reasonable for Preston/Buzzell (PB) to include all the numbers that they did and that all those numbers are, as best you know, accurate? This is not a question of the article that you would write. In particular, you imply that it is unacceptable to include a reference to the civilian death rate, even if that helps lay readers relate the issue to their own experiences. You claim that “This is why comparisons to death rates in civilian settings—even comparatively violent ones—are misguided.” In other words, these numbers must never be mentioned by PB even if they think the comparison is useful?

Second, given that it is reasonable to include all the numbers that they did, how would you rewrite the article to make it better? What specific sentences would you change (keeping all the factually accurate numbers present) to make it acceptable?

50

mpowell 08.28.06 at 1:58 pm

Good comeback Kieran. Instapundit is easily explained. The internet is for porn. Instapundit is Republican porn.

51

Uncle Kvetch 08.28.06 at 2:03 pm

their dearly beloved, “QUAGMIRE,” is dying a slow and painful death

I’m glad to hear it, Steve. Given the resounding and definitive success of the Iraqi campaign, I’m sure you’ll join me in calling on the President to bring the troops home immediately, since their work in Iraq is clearly done.

52

mpowell 08.28.06 at 2:05 pm

How about this for what is wrong w/ the article: the main idea at the front of the article is not supported by their evidence. Its pretty pathetic when the follow up on the main lead is all the reasons the main lead is misleading.

If you are even close to serious about making a fair argument, you would not open the article w/ the 8.42 number- in fact, it doesn’t even belong in the article. You have to at least start w/ the 1.53 or 4.37 numbers.

So to summarize, their are plenty of problems w/ this article, but the existence of the 3rd paragraph is the worst single offender.

53

KCinDC 08.28.06 at 2:07 pm

(except, as the article states, with the particular subgroup-African American males of a certain age, in Philadelphia, it is correct)

No, Steve, it’s not correct, and the article doesn’t state that. There’s a huge difference between being violently attacked and dying.

54

Steve 08.28.06 at 2:09 pm

“If being a black man in America is more dangerous than fighting a war,…”

Oh, it looks like stage 5, ACCEPTANCE, is finally arriving.

Steve

55

Walt 08.28.06 at 2:11 pm

Except being a black man in America is not more dangerous that fighting a war. The basis for the argument has already been totally crushed by Kieran, and the commenters. I realize this fact does not fit your ideological purposes, but it is so.

56

Uncle Kvetch 08.28.06 at 2:36 pm

Don’t keep me hanging, Steve: if Iraq is now safer than inner city Philadelphia, what in God’s name are we doing spending billions of dollars keeping 100,000+ troops there? Anxiously awaiting your response.

57

David Kane 08.28.06 at 3:01 pm

mpowell writes

How about this for what is wrong w/ the article: the main idea at the front of the article is not supported by their evidence. Its pretty pathetic when the follow up on the main lead is all the reasons the main lead is misleading.

Did you click the link? The sentence that Kieran quotes last is in the third paragraph. Looks like you were fooled by his misleading (at least in your case) use of ellipses. (I am not arguing that Kieran meant to mislead anyone but he obviously mislead you.)

It is not the “lead.” It is one sentence in the article and much of the later paragraphs highlight problems associated with it. Do you believe that the sentence should not have appeared? That those numbers should never be quoted?

58

y81 08.28.06 at 3:17 pm

kcindc (no. 44), and this applies to some others too: advances in Emergency Room medicine mean that trauma victims of all kinds have much higher survival rates than they did 40 years ago (the Vietnam era). In fact, there are large numbers of victims of inner-city violence who do not end up dead, but do end up paralyzed, brain-damaged etc. They aren’t very well-tracked statistically, however. I’m not sure where one could get numbers for the category “suffers permanent disability as a result of violent crime.” So a parent maybe can’t make a totally well-informed decision.

59

Rob St. Amant 08.28.06 at 3:27 pm

I think what many of the commenters above are objecting to is the statement, “One meaningful comparison is to the civilian population of the United States” (my emphasis). Given all the caveats that follow the bare presentation of the numbers, it’s not clear that it’s meaningful at all.

One thing I found especially ludicrous was this: “But one can also find something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil. The death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia was 4.37 per 1,000 in 2002, 11 percent higher than among troops in Iraq.” It highlights the problem with just comparing numbers between very different situations. Philadelphia isn’t a combat zone. Soldiers in Iraq, when they’re on patrol, aren’t wearing sweats and sneakers and watch caps; they’re driving around in tanks wearing flak jackets and helmets. Consider that the wounded-in-action rate in Iraq is 7.5 the KIA rate, and ask whether it wouldn’t be reasonable to assume that all that armor and such means that many (most?) wounded soldiers might have been killed outright without it. I’d buy a comparison between heavily armed people wearing street clothes wandering around Iraq and around Philadelphia. I just don’t think a reasonable person would conclude Iraq is safer—all you have to do is look at the civilian numbers.

60

Kieran Healy 08.28.06 at 3:47 pm

david,

First, do you agree that it is reasonable for Preston/Buzzell (PB) to include all the numbers that they did and that all those numbers are, as best you know, accurate? This is not a question of the article that you would write.

I said the comparisons they led off with were highly misleading. PB say the first (US rate) is “meaningful” but “imperfect,” and give little qualification to the second (young black men in Philly). I argued both these comparisons are so imperfect as to be meaningless, or outright misleading.

In particular, you imply that it is unacceptable to include a reference to the civilian death rate, even if that helps lay readers relate the issue to their own experiences.

In what sense is the crude US death rate something that people can relate to as part of their own experience? What number would you have guessed before you read this article? If you want experience-based comparisons, then the kind of thing I talked about at the end of the post — e.g., whether it’s possible to fly to the city and tour around in safety — would be much more relevant.

You claim that “This is why comparisons to death rates in civilian settings—even comparatively violent ones—are misguided.” In other words, these numbers must never be mentioned by PB even if they think the comparison is useful?

I’m _arguing_ that the comparisons are misguided and so I am _disagreeing_ with PB about their utility. You seem to be trying to spin this as though I want to censor them or something (“must never be mentioned” etc). It’s completely clear from what I wrote that I’m trying to provide reasons why comparisons using numbers of this sort must be done carefully, and why some of the comparisons they made aren’t of any use.

Second, given that it is reasonable to include all the numbers that they did,

Again, that’s precisely what’s at issue. I argued that some of the comparisons in the first half of the article are misleading or useless.

how would you rewrite the article to make it better? What specific sentences would you change (keeping all the factually accurate numbers present) to make it acceptable?

david, there is an infinity of “factually accurate numbers” that might be included in an article like this. The question is whether they are useful or appropriate to the point of the article — in this case, giving an accurate sense of how dangerous it is to serve in Iraq. Some of what they talk about in the second half of the article is interesting and important, and I said that in my original post. In those cases they are making sensible comparisons of different kinds of service members. Comparisons to peacetime death rates for military personnel or previous wars are also useful. So is data on fatalities vs injuries. But the lead-off comparisons are no good, and shouldn’t have been included. Not because the specific death rate calculations for the US or Philadelphia aren’t _true_, mind, but because the way they are compared to the military numbers just isn’t helpful or appropriate.

61

mpowell 08.28.06 at 4:22 pm

david kane:

Did you read my post? I specifically said I disliked the 3rd paragraph of the article, so obviously I clicked the link.

Here is the opening of the article:

1st paragraph: this article is about military mortality in Iraq
2nd paragraph: here is the mortality rate for US soldiers in Iraq
3rd paragraph: here is the mortality rate for the civilian population in the US

This statistic has NO relevance whatsoever for this article. So, no, it should not be quoted in this article. Instead it is used as the first basis of comparison. Caveats or not, when this is your first point of comparison you are obviously trying to suggest a certain conclusion. As Kieran points out, later points of comparison are flawed in their own right, but this 3rd paragraph highlights clearly the intent of the author- to mislead using bogus statistical data comparisons.

62

Steve Reuland 08.28.06 at 5:34 pm

I can’t help but wonder how Instapundit, or the rest of the right-wing blogosphere, would react if someone published an article pointing out that the death toll from 9/11 had no significant impact on the overall US death rate in 2001, and opine that “it’s hard to look at these numbers and see the catastrophe”.

63

gz 08.28.06 at 5:45 pm

The death rate from homicides is on the order of 0.05 per 1000; for all violence in the US, 0.2 per 1000.

If the point was to put things in perspective for the statically illiterate, why were such obvious comparisons on the low side excluded, in favor of two examples on the high side? Does anyone think that death rates from all causes, or mining rates from extremely atypical subsets of the population, are somehow especially enlightening for those unfamiliar with statistics? Of course not. They chose their examples either for “shock” value, or to make some crude political point.

64

introstatperson 08.28.06 at 8:11 pm

Hi, concern trolls:

There was no excuse for the following passage:

“One meaningful comparison is to the civilian population of the United States. That rate was 8.42 per 1,000 in 2003, more than twice that for military personnel in Iraq”

That is not “one meaningful comparison” by any standard. Something like that would get a zero on an introductory stat course.

The authors statement that if non-fatal casulties were included the numbers would likely be similar was not given adequate support, and was speculative.

If the authors were demographers, why could they not get the appropriate statistics? Any epidemiologist, statistician, or demographer should be able to find better numbers within a few days.

It was a bad, tendentious article. As written it either had no point, or gave a wrong impression. Period, end of story, case closed. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, needs to take a statistics course. Introductory courses are fairly cheap and you can enroll at any community college.

65

Thomas 08.28.06 at 8:33 pm

Kieran, where in your original post did you say that some portion of the article was “interesting and important”? I see the part where you call the article some “sort of stunt” and “a joke” (without mentioning the “dumber than a can of Cheez Wiz” line), but not the complimentary stuff. Would you be kind enough to point out the praise you offered?

66

Thomas 08.28.06 at 8:36 pm

introstatperson, that may be the dumbest comment yet. Kieran, you must be proud to see the ignorant tearing down esteemed sociologists in your comments in an attempt to agree with you.

67

David Kane 08.28.06 at 8:42 pm

I appreciate Kieran’s reply.

First, I make this point all the time, but I still think that CT would benefit from a greater diversity of authors. Surely there is an actual war supporter and/or Republican with CT-level writing skills.

Second, Kieran asks:

In what sense is the crude US death rate something that people can relate to as part of their own experience? What number would you have guessed before you read this article?

In our daily lives, we have a (very rough) sense of how many people we know (friends and family) and how many people die. Now, this is a lousy measure, of course, since it is so age-biased. But it is something, it is the start of the conversation. What is the first number you would give? Again, I like your airport test, but you must allow a demographer to write about, uh, demography. Which death rates may be sited, in your view, in an article like this? (I really don’t know what number I would have guessed beforehand, although I would have known that the population death rate was much higher.)

Second, you claim that the statement of fact that the US death rate is “8.42 per 1,000 in 2003” is “highly misleading.” You claim that:

The question is whether they are useful or appropriate to the point of the article—in this case, giving an accurate sense of how dangerous it is to serve in Iraq.

That is not the point of the article, at least according to the authors. Again, this is not the article that you would write. That would no doubt be a better article. But demographers want to talk about demography. They want to report the death rate in Iraq and then compare it to other death rates, pointing out why the strengths and weaknesses of the comparison.

Let me not accuse you of censorship. You agree that demographers can write articles about Iraq. You agree that they can focus on death rates. But you deny that they can site the death rate for the US population at all in the article? Or you think that it is fine to mention it, but only at the end? Or you think that they can mention it in the third paragraph, but not the way that they did?

If the last, please rewrite the third paragraph in an acceptable fashion.

Third, I don’t mean to be a troll, but what is your hypothesis of why PB wrote the article the way that they did? You think they are stupid? You think that they are crazed neo-cons, eager to mislead readers about the costs of war? You see them as wanting to pull a “stunt?”

I give them the benefit of the doubt. They started with the US death rate because, in their view, it was a reasonable place to start from.

68

David Kane 08.28.06 at 8:52 pm

To several of the comments above, the title of the article is “Service in Iraq: Just How Risky?” That is the point. Not “How is the War Going?” not “Should We Have Invaded?”

Now, if that’s your title, then death rates are a reasonable focus. And, if you have death rates, then why not set the death rate for the entire population as the place to start the discussion? This seems reasonable. This is not to say that Kieran’s useful discussion of the risk to police officers is bad or unimportant, just that every article has a word limit. If you want to add something, you need to take something out. Which sentences/paragraphs would you take out?

One option is to take out this part:

One meaningful comparison is to the civilian population of the United States. That rate was 8.42 per 1,000 in 2003, more than twice that for military personnel in Iraq.

The comparison is imperfect, of course, because a much higher fraction of the American population is elderly and subject to higher death rates from degenerative diseases.

Would that make everyone happy? Would the article be reasonable then? Or is it also verbotten to mention the Philly figures?

I really want to understand how CT’ers would make this article better while allowing the authors to answer the title they pose in the question and keep within their word limit.

69

Randy Paul 08.28.06 at 8:53 pm

Reynolds wrote the following:

Yes, by historical standards the war in Iraq isn’t terribly bloody, which does tend to get lost in the media coverage.

Unless, of course one is an IRaqi who doesn’t have the benefit, for example, of living in the Green Zone.

70

Randy Paul 08.28.06 at 8:55 pm

I really want to understand how CT’ers would make this article better while allowing the authors to answer the title they pose in the question and keep within their word limit.

David Kane,

Maybe including the death rate of Iraqi civilians.

71

Peter 08.28.06 at 8:59 pm

As for the idea of travelling to Baghdad, as of about a year ago – I doubt it’s changed any – the road trip from the airport to the relatively safe Green Zone was so dangerous that news organizations and other businesses sending people to Baghdad would arrange for them to be driven from the airport in armored vehicles escorted by machine gun-toting American, British or South African mercenaries (Iraqi bodyguards weren’t to be trusted). The cost of a single such trip could run into the thousands of dollars.

72

David Kane 08.28.06 at 9:00 pm

Kieran claims:

Some of what they talk about in the second half of the article is interesting and important, and I said that in my original post.

No, you didn’t. It is going to be tough to have a reasonable discussion of this issue if you claim to have described some of their work as “interesting and important” when, in fact, you did no such thing.

73

Charles Winder 08.28.06 at 9:56 pm

I seem to recall a study a while back in which the risk of death due to terrorist attack was put into ‘perspective’ by comparison to other risks such as auto accidents and lightning strikes. At the time, from what I remember, nobody was pleased to be told that September 11th was statistically not a big deal.

74

Kieran 08.28.06 at 10:39 pm

Kieran claims:

Some of what they talk about in the second half of the article is interesting and important, and I said that in my original post.

No, you didn’t. It is going to be tough to have a reasonable discussion of this issue if you claim to have described some of their work as “interesting and important” when, in fact, you did no such thing.

Whoops, you’re right. I didn’t say it in my original post, and I apologise for mistakenly saying I did. So, let me say it now: some of what they say in the second half of the article is interesting and important, especially the stuff on differential risk across the various branches of service and the variation in death rates by race.

75

Barbar 08.28.06 at 10:57 pm

nobody was pleased to be told that September 11th was statistically not a big deal.

Really? I think I remember Instapundit giving big kudos to the MSM for not being all hysterical and putting everything in proper perspective.

Haaa… ha. God I hate these f-ers.

76

Ragout 08.28.06 at 11:51 pm

I really think it’s pathetic to demand that researchers avoid statements that can be misinterpreted. Kieran says:

Inevitably, people like Glenn Reynolds see numbers like this and—instead of thinking “Christ, inner city homicide rates are even remotely comparable to military deaths in Iraq!”—think, hey, “it’s hard to look at these numbers and see the catastrophe” that the mainstream media report on.

Well, yeah, Instapundit is a fool. But he’ll be spouting nonsense whether demographers report the facts or suppress them as Kieran urges. I think the facts support my ideology, so I say report the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

77

Kieran Healy 08.29.06 at 12:18 am

whether demographers report the facts or suppress them as Kieran urges.

Oh for god’s sake.

78

Ragout 08.29.06 at 12:47 am

Kieran,

You seem to be saying that researchers should consider how Glenn Reynolds and his ilk might misinterpret their statements before saying anything. That’s ridiculous.

79

dsquared 08.29.06 at 1:23 am

surely it is not ridiculous to suggest that a careful writer does actually consider whether his statements are going to be misinterpreted? In any case, some passages in that article (the comparison with Philadelphia most notably) seem to be more or less incapable of not being misinterpreted.

80

john m. 08.29.06 at 4:42 am

To several of the comments above, the title of the article is “Service in Iraq: Just How Risky?” That is the point. Not “How is the War Going?” not “Should We Have Invaded?”

Actually, having read the post, original article and all the comments, what I cannot understand is why the level of risk to the military in Iraq (as compared to anything you wish) is informative in and of itself. I would expect the best equipped, most powerful army in the world to have relatively low mortality rates during the tyoe of operaton underway in Iraq – it would be newsworthy if it were otherwise. Being such an obvious point, I think it highly unlikely that the only purpose of the article was to highlight this. It is fair to assume the authors are trying to imply a wider point about the success of the US in Iraq, especially given they use civilian mortality figures for some of their comparisons whereas they really should confine themselves to miltary figures in other similar operations if the only point is determine the level of risk to the military. The figures they use cannot be said to provide meaningful comparisons as the base scenarios are different. If you doubt that, it is just as legitimate a tactic to compare the mortality rate between soldiers who stay in the US and those who are deployed in Iraq.

81

ajay 08.29.06 at 4:45 am

Peter: it’s my understanding that Route Irish is now relatively clear. The rest of Baghdad, not so much, but we now control an eight-mile road into the centre of town.

Shades of General Haig’s plan to move his cocktail cabinet fifty yards closer to Berlin…

82

rea 08.29.06 at 5:40 am

“that comparison also meaningless, because who wouldn’t rather go to Saigon than to Bahgdad”

US troops serving in Vietnam would go on leave in Saigon. You don’t hear much about US troops going on leave in Bagdad, do you?

83

John Emerson 08.29.06 at 6:46 am

Ragout, you’re an idiot. Writers in newspapers and non-elite magazines have an obligation to write so that careless readers don’t get the wrong idea, and writers on politicized topics in newspapers and non-elite magazines have an obligation not to write in a way which can be easily used by iedeologues to mislead people. This is journalism, not science, and there’s a difference between good journalism and bad journalism.

I’ve spent days on end over the last several years trying to explain to academic types that good political journalism has its own rules, and that in certain specific respects the rules for journalism are stricter than the rules for academic writing. It’s a tough slog, though; many academics simply define journalism in terms of its deficiencies, because academics are taught to avoid journalistic writing. (This is not to concede that article was academically good; in an undergraduate class, the bad paragraph would have been covered with red and marked down.)

By now people are starting to believe that a lot of the bad writing in the Post is, for the Post management, a feature rather than a bug. Brad DeLong is the place to go on that.

84

David Kane 08.29.06 at 7:02 am

I think that this is a very interesting thread and I would urge Kieran or dsquared to revisit the topic again at the higher level to carry the conversation forward. dsquared writes:

In any case, some passages in that article (the comparison with Philadelphia most notably) seem to be more or less incapable of not being misinterpreted.

Again, I want to push Kieran and dsquared on the topic of how, if they were the editor for this article, they would suggest to fix it. Let’s focus on three statements of fact: the death rates for the overall US population, for US men 18-39 and for African American men 20-34 in Philadelphia.

dsquared implies but does not say that the last fact does not belong in the article since it is inevitable that it will be misinterpreted. Would dsquared, as editor, remove this fact? Would Kieran? Also, should/must the other two facts above be removed. Kieran seemed to feel that the first was a “stunt” and did not belong in the article. That is, if he were the editor, he would have removed it. True?

Once we know whether or not you would insist on removing these facts or just insist on better phrasing, more context, clearer explanation or whatever, then we can move forward in the discussion. I think most readers think that you think that these facts do not belong in an article of this type (by these authors, with this title), else why refer to it as a “stunt” or claim that misinterpretation is inevitable?

But, if you agree that it is reasonable to include these facts, then we can just work on better phrasing/explanation/context together and then make our sugesstions to the authors. And, Kumbaya, the world is a better place.

85

Ray 08.29.06 at 7:22 am

If I were the editor, I would pull all three facts. The piece purports to be about how risky it is to serve in Iraq. The important things to compare that to are – being a soldier in peace-time, and being a soldier in another war. (and then it’s useful to break down the risk into sub-categories – being a black soldier in Iraq, being an NCO in Iraq, being a marine in Iraq)

The point of a comparison is that it should be meaningful. The first comparison is not meaningful, because there is no similarity between a six year old in Nebraska and a soldier in Iraq. (If you want to bring up mortality for the civilian population of the US, the obvious comparison is to the civilian population of Iraq)

The comparisons to civilian males aged 18-39 are slightly more relevant, in that it could be a choice – be a civilian in the US or a soldier in Iraq. But the fact that the authors don’t analyse this any further – 50% of civilians in this bracket are killed by drunk driving, 68% of soldiers in Iraq are killed by IED’s, for example – is evidence that they’re cherry-picking data to make a political point.

86

Steve 08.29.06 at 7:43 am

If I were the editor, I would pull all three facts. The piece purports to be about how risky it is to serve in Iraq. The important things to compare that to are – being a soldier in peace-time, and being a soldier in another war. (and then it’s useful to break down the risk into sub-categories – being a black soldier in Iraq, being an NCO in Iraq, being a marine in Iraq)

Per a comment on Lawyers Guns and Money, the death rate in the peacetime military is about 0.57 per 1000, roughly a sixth of the starting comparison (the overall civilian population, cancer wards and all) used by the author’s article. I haven’t independently checked that number, but it does seem comprable to that provided by a little Googling (one of the hits was a RedState article also trying to minimize concern for the war dead).

87

pedro 08.29.06 at 8:35 am

If I were the editor, I would bring to the attention of the authors how inappropriate those particular comparisons are. I emphatically would not censor the authors. Nevertheless, privately I would think roughly the same thoughts that Kieran has expressed here. If, on the other hand, I had a public forum like CT, I wouldn’t have any misgivings exercising my right to strongly criticize the authors in the manner in which Kieran has done so.

To me, it seems as though david kane is intent on making it appear like this is a “freedom of speech” issue, in which Kieran and dsquared are cast as the championships of censorship. Surely, he wouldn’t cast himself as a champion of censorship simply for criticizing Kieran’s tone and post.

88

Ragout 08.29.06 at 8:43 am

The article reads more like popular science than “political journalism.” And Glenn Reynolds isn’t a “careless reader.” Good luck trying to write something that he can’t willfully distorts.

I enjoy reading popular science articles in the newspaper, and I don’t think people should demand that they be turned into political journalism. What’s next? Will you start demanding that articles about fusion research have a pro-environment message? That articles about cloning research criticize the religious right?

So I don’t think the point of the article was that things in Iraq are going swimmingly. One natural interpretation is Kieran’s: “even in a real, live, shooting war, only a comparatively small number of troops in an army ever see direct, front-line duty.” But I don’t think that was the author’s main point either. Their main point was more like: how should we think about mortality rates?

Finally, the comparison to “African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia,” is perfectly meaningful. It’s basically the right statistic to think about if you’re a black male in Philadelphia thinking about joining the Army. Unless you’re assigned to a combat position, it’s relatively safe. Even Iraq is fairly safe for US troops, since most of them are in places like the green zone.

89

Ray 08.29.06 at 8:45 am

What do you think editors do? When an editor says “that comparison is laughably stupid, it makes your entire article suspect, and it would make this paper look stupid if we published it. Cut and rewrite”, that’s not censorship, it’s being an editor.

90

robert 08.29.06 at 8:50 am

David Kane wrote:

But, if you agree that it is reasonable to include these facts, then we can just work on better phrasing/explanation/context together and then make our sugesstions to the authors.

Hmmm. “Make our suggestions to the authors?” Why? It’s not as if one is allowed a mulligan on op-ed pieces, and it certainly wouldn’t qualify as publishable in any academic journal. In this case, it may be that criticism is more appropriate than suggestions for revisions. In any event, I think that the question isn’t quite “is it reasonable to include these facts” but rather “is it reasonable to include these facts when total article length is constrained to 800 words?” Perhaps the op-ed was cut down from some longer piece, but what’s left is factually correct and analytically shoddy. If you’ve read much of Preston’s work you’d know that Sam isn’t known for shoddy or incomplete analysis but this actually reads like something a first-year graduate student might write — before he or she got creamed in seminar.

91

Ray 08.29.06 at 8:57 am

It is possible to imagine an article that says “Suppose you’re black, 18, and live in Philadelphia. How do you live to 40?” Such an article would say that staying where you are is dangerous. But such an article would say that volunteering for a tour of duty in Iraq doesn’t really help (especially in the Army or Marines), and that there are things you can do in Philadelphia that increase your survival rate by much more (or you could just leave town).

The points made in other comments above are still relevant. In Iraq, soldiers are travelling in armoured convoys, with full body armour, and excellent medical facilities on stand-by, doing everything they can to stay alive, and yet they are still getting killed.

92

KCinDC 08.29.06 at 9:02 am

Ragout, wouldn’t the relevant comparison for those Philadelphians you mention be with the death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in the Army in Iraq, rather than the US military in Iraq as a whole? Why have the demographic restrictions on one part of the comparison but not the other, and why exclude the branch of the service?

Several people seem to have trouble distinguishing between editorial judgment and censorship. There is no First Amendment right to have whatever you write published in the Post.

93

Thomas 08.29.06 at 9:03 am

dsquared, can you tell us how you personally misinterpreted the comparison of mortality rates of troops in Iraq to a particularly at-risk subset of the population of Philadelphia? Or did you avoid the problem? Is it only those who don’t have your incredible intellectual resources who would misinterpret the statement?

ray, I wonder if anyone has told you that there are both men and women serving in Iraq, and that their ages aren’t limited to the age range you find most appropriate as a comparison set. Those facts might suggest the limited utility of that particular comparison, and the need for a comparison with the population at large–or at least one might reasonably think–as PB apparently did–that both should be included.

94

Ray 08.29.06 at 9:20 am

thomas, I’m well aware that women are serving in Iraq, but I’m using the comparison sets in the linked article. Direct your complaints of sexism to Samuel Preston, who thought the “death rate for U.S. men ages 18 to 39” and “death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia” figures were more relevant than the figures for all 18 to 39 year olds, or all 18 to 65 year olds.

(the comparison to the entire population is still not relevant, unless there are 6 year old girls and 82 year old men now serving in the US Army.)

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Thomas 08.29.06 at 9:31 am

ray, the article gives information on 17-19 year olds serving in Iraq, so the 18- comparison sets you offer aren’t perfect fits, are they? And what would you say about offering only workplace statistics–wouldn’t that also be misleading, given that the Iraq troop statistics won’t be limited to service-related deaths? (Not as stupid as a can of Cheez Wiz, sure, but certainly not a perfect comparison, right?)

I suppose your suggestion of sexism on the part of the authors is perfectly appropriate, given that they’ve been accused of incompetence and worse so far. Well, given that Preston is a sociologist, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by the shoddy quality of his thinking and his willingness to politicize his conclusions. Still, sexism is a bit of a surprise.

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Ray 08.29.06 at 9:48 am

thomas, that’s a subset used in a comparison with a different subset. The ratio of deaths to person years is not qualified – it’s all troops, of all ages.
The Iraq deaths aren’t all deaths by violence, but they don’t include illness, afaik, because those troops are sent to hospitals in Europe or the US. But that’s why I said the article should have included comparisons with military peace-time deaths, and deaths in other wars. If they’d included military peace-time deaths they could have said “Just being in the army is dangerous, because there are a certain number of accidents etc every year. Compared to this base level, Iraq is X times more dangerous.”

And thomas, you accused me of sexism (and ageism). It’s a bit rich for you to get huffy on the part of the authors, when I point out that the sexist assumptions are in their figures, not mine.

There’s no longer any rhyme or reason to your defence of this article, is there? It’s all just random bullshit flinging and attempts at distraction…

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Steve 08.29.06 at 9:56 am

“How cold is it on Venus? Well, one comparison would be to the winters in Minnesota. The temperature in Minnesota, during the coldest time of the year, would freeze a glass of water in XX seconds. On Venus, that glass of water would freeze in less than a minute. Perhaps your deep freeze, where the temperatures are XX degrees. Nope, Venus is colder. You would have to go to the research facilities at UCLA, or directly to the North and South Poles, to encounter the temperatures a potential space traveller would encounter on the surface of Venus.”

Obviously, I made this entire thing up. But it is the type of article one reads all the time-an attempt to make understandable, in normal experience, statistics or measurements that people don’t have are real feel for. Noone would believe that I think Venus is anything like Minnesota, or my deep freeze, or like a research facility at UCLA. Neither would they think that this proves I want to take a vacation on Venus, or that its safer on Venus than in my freezer, or any other preposterous hypothetical.

This article did the same thing. The writer isn’t claiming that soldiers in Iraq can be accurately, scientifically compared to the population of the country at large. He isn’t claiming that those soldiers are exactly comparable to African Americans in Philadelphia. He’s just trying to bring some human sense of the statistic: “…ratio of deaths to person-years, .00392, or 3.92 deaths per 1,000 person-years, is the death rate of military personnel in Iraq.” Frankly, the fact that it is even in the ballpark of a subset of civilians in peacetime is astounding-the fact that it is actually lower is mindboggling.

Neither is he trying to claim that Bagdad is as safe as Philadelphia, or as safe as Saigon, or that Iraqis are as well off as Americans, or that the war is over, or that Iraq is or is not Vietnam, or that anyone wants to take a vacation in Baghdad (or in Philadelphia) or any of the other nonsense in this conversation. Your critiques are petty. It is clear that an article that is written for a newspaper for the layman doesn’t pass the test of a peer-reviewed article in an academic journal would pass. This is a surprise to all of you? Get a grip.

Methinks you doth protest too much.

Steve

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Ray 08.29.06 at 10:04 am

No, I don’t buy it. People have a strong sensory impression of how cold it is when it snows, or how cold their freezer is, but they don’t have a good mental image of a statistic like the mortality rate per thousand in the US. (And most people aren’t young black men in Philadelphia, so the article is not comparing the statistics to their personal experience.) So the article isn’t proceeding from familiar examples to the unfamiliar, it’s comparing one hard-to-grasp number to another.

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Steve 08.29.06 at 10:30 am

Christ, Other Steve, this isn’t hard. Comparing the temperature on Venus to the temperature in Minnesota is useful in a popular science article; comparing the death rate for the US military in Iraq to the death rate for the US civilian population not in Iraq isn’t much less so, because you’re adjusting two factors and implying that you’re only adjusting one. As I said in comment 34, if a scientist had written a piece about climate change that led off by throwing a shock figure out there that conflated two factors, one of which vastly outweighed global warming (seasonality, for instance), people would be quite right to say that it was a cheap trick. The death rate for peacetime military is a sixth of that for the general population; the comparison is totally useless, even for getting a Minnesota-in-December sense of whether this figure represents a big deal.

The stats comparing the death rate Iraq to Vietnam are interesting, although I’d seen similar ones discussing the advances in battlefield medicine, and comparison the death rate in Iraq to that of South Philly don’t seem nearly as misleading. But it’s a lousy piece of rhetoric that seems designed to pander to the Post’s center-right editorial stance.

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Steve 08.29.06 at 10:33 am

That should obviously read “[making the comparison] is much less so” in my above.

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Rob St. Amant 08.29.06 at 10:46 am

Here’s what I think is a more useful version of Steve’s temperature illustration (using Mars, because my understanding is that Venus is quite hot): “On Mars, protected by the most effective insulation that is available today in portable form, you’d freeze to death in less than an hour. In the coldest natural places on Earth, you’d freeze almost that fast, but only if you were completely naked.” I think it’s more useful because it supplies the context that some readers will not fill in automatically. If the goal of the original article was to give readers insight, it should be a reasonable insight.

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dfinberg 08.29.06 at 10:54 am

steve seems right on. Except for the fact that the mean surface temperature on venus is around 400 degress centigrade. Well, at least he’s keeping his batting average steady.

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MFA 08.29.06 at 10:58 am

The mortality rate among the richest Americans, with access to the best medical care in the nation and all the safety and security money can buy, is 100%.

The mortality rate for the citizens of Iraq is also 100%.

Therefore, our invasion of Iraq has produced for them a mortality rate equivalent to that enjoyed by the most privileged members of our society.

That’s freeance for ya.

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Craig 08.29.06 at 11:10 am

I think a more important point than how many US troops are killed, or even how many US troops are injured or how many Iraqis are killed and injured, is the fact that our policies are set more by the public’s tolerance for casualties than by any principled system of law and morality.

Think about it. The US going to war *should* be based on great self-restraint and adherence to not abusing its power in pursuit of its own interests in unjust ways – but it’s not, today.

All of that self-restraint, all of the systems designed to restrict war from the US’s own laws, to our democracy’s system of government, to the UN, do not stop the war direction.

The only limit the US seems to recognize is the public’s weariness of casualties.

This is going to be a far more important issue in coming wars, because the Pentagon is creating new weapons systems which will greatly reduce US casualties, including space-based systems.

What, then, will be the restricting factor on the use of military force? Almost no restriction.

So, it’s fine to note the problems with propaganda that minimize the casualties of war, but it’s important not to forget the larger problem that our society has failed to create any effective system for which to set war policies, which makes principles, and not casualties, the rules.

And we’re moving even further from policy by principles, in attacking the UN.

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abb1 08.29.06 at 11:26 am

The mortality rate among the richest Americans […] is 100%.

I dunno, don’t some of them get cryopreserved?

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