Voices

Fatality flaw

The U.S. death rate in Iraq is indeed rising, but some comparisons are still in order

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

Almost two years ago, when the war in Iraq was only four months old, I noted in this space how manipulative the mainstream media had been in their portrayal of the number of American deaths. We ran that column under the headline, "It could be worse"-and provided some historical comparisons to make the point.

Surely enough, in the 700 days since then, things have indeed gotten worse in Iraq. We owe it to careful readers to update our statistics, and we are doing that on this page. We will not bury the fact that the toll in American lives has climbed from 1.4 per day when we first discussed this topic to 2.1 per day over the course of the whole Iraqi war.

You can obviously make the argument, if that is your purpose, that an increase from 1.4 to 2.1 is a ghastly 50 percent increase in the daily death rate. And statistically, of course, that is indeed the case.

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But a good analyst looks for comparisons in more than one dimension. That's why I think it's so suspect that no other reporter I can find has made the historical comparison with other U.S. wars-or with other causes of death.

For while a jump from 1.4 to 2.1 seems huge, the daily 2.1 figure remains startlingly low by historical standards. Only the Revolutionary War and the much more recent Gulf War dipped below that absolute figure-and when adjusted for the nation's population at the time of those wars (note the last two columns), the present death rate equals the lowest on record.

We also noted here a couple of years ago the importance of keeping war deaths in perspective with other causes of dying. Throughout the United States, 115 people die every single day from motor vehicle accidents. Another 37 people die every day simply from falling, and 35 more from accidental poisoning. Still 15 people more (that's seven times the current death rate in Iraq) die daily from suffocation, 10 from fire and burns, and nine from drowning. At least two dozen separate causes of death are statistically more dangerous than the war in Iraq.

Opponents of the war, of course, argue-with some merit-that comparing accidental deaths with preventable deaths is specious. "We may not be able to stop traffic accidents," such people say, "but we can demonstrably eliminate 2.1 deaths every day just by ending the war in Iraq."

Which takes us right to the core of the issue. Somewhere in this statistical maze you also have to tally in the 3,000 Americans who died on a single day in September 2001, along with some kind of estimate as to how many more might have perished at the hands of terrorists since then if a stiff response had not been mounted. And then how do you figure in the 30 Iraqis who have been dying every single day since the war to liberate their country started 27 months ago? No one knows for sure, but almost certainly, more than 25,000 men, women, and children have been wasted by the terrorists. Fewer than a third of those have been in the military or in law enforcement; most were civilians. Such awful wantonness-of both the New York and the Baghdad variety-will only continue if the perpetrators are not restrained. In context, that makes the 2.1 figure look small indeed.

And yes, I have considered how big even 1.0 would look if it were a member of my family. My son-in-law, the father of five of my grandchildren, serves in Iraq right now-and I think about the risks several times every day. That's precisely why all of us have got to see the numbers in perspective.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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