casualty rates in Iraq -- what is that about?

There has been a rather disappointing discussion going on at Crooked Timber about a Washington Post article by Samuel H. Preston and Emily Buzzell about the casualty rate in Iraq. Kieran Healy attacks them, I think justly, for this passage:

“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.

"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.”

As Healy points out,

“… 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.”

In other words, you aren't going to find "something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil" in Philly. The comments section than took off in the usual direction – was the comparison valid, was it invalid, etc., etc.

My own sense is that this avoids a more interesting question: what is the comparison supposed to prove? And why are comparisons like this common on pro-war sites?

I made a comment myself, which is about what the figures actually show us about the war:

"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."

This is a point I've flogged all too often at this site.

But there is a broader issue still. As I keep repeating ad nauseum, the motivations for the Iraq war have to be found in the war culture itself – it is not just Iraq that is in question, but the past sixty years in which war has not only overturned elementary principles of democracy, but has so shaped the attitude of an influential segment in not only the U.S., but in every prosperous nation, that war has become a goal, weapon production has become a manufacturing mainstay, and a low level, constant belligerence has become the temperamental default for the ‘discourse’ about the interactions between states.

In my next post, I want to get to the immediate political root of the Iraq war, which I think transcends the grab bag of the war supporters motives. This is, among other things, an experimental war – a new expression of creating a military force that is solely at the discretion of the executive branch, and using it aggressively with no need to respond in any fashion to any legal or social constraint. To roll out this model of war, you need war lite – you need a volunteer army that you can claim has an acceptable number of casualties in order for that army to, so to speak, operate outside the field of attention – of all except, of course, the unfortunates they operate on. The return of the mercenary form, although not labeled as such, is what we are seeing.


Thank you for your interesting post!
Once you have cited the work of Prof. Samuel Preston, perhaps you may find it interesting to take a look at discussion of his book "Fatal Years":
Longevity Science: Fatal Years