Through the unknown, remembered gate
The Washington Post looks at the statistical danger of duty in Iraq. The article, written by a Professor of Demography at the University of Pennsylvania, begins by comparing the risk of death in Iraq with other situations. What's not captured in this comparison is the danger of wounds. It would be interesting to line up the risk of say, losing a single limb in a civilian situation would be to an equivalent event in Iraq. But for deaths the situation is as follows:
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.
How does this rate compare with that in other groups? 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.
However, what really affects the risk of dying is not so much location -- being in Iraq versus not being in Iraq -- so much as what a person might be doing. All other things being equal the risk of death is largely borne by the ground forces. In particular, although the Wapo article doesn't say it, by people in the combat arms. Unsurprisingly, the highest risk is borne by young men in ground combat specialties.
Marines are paying the highest toll in Iraq. Their death rate is more than double that of the Army, 10 times higher than that of the Navy and 20 times higher than for the Air Force. In fact, those in the Navy and Air Force have substantially lower death rates than civilian men ages 20 to 34. ... Lieutenants have the highest mortality of any rank in the Army, 19 percent higher than all Army troops combined. Marine Corps lieutenants have 11 percent higher mortality than all Marines. But the single highest-mortality group in any service consists of lance corporals in the Marines, whose death risk is 3.3 times that of all troops in Iraq.
What you do counts far more than what you are with respect to rank, age, gender or ethnic background. Women, who are generally not assigned to combat specialties have a death rate 18% of men. Blacks have a death risk 30 to 40 % lower than non-blacks because so many women in the service are black they pull down the average.
Iraq may have diverged from the historical norm in that it is comparatively less deadly than previous wars, even compared to lower intensity conflicts like Vietnam, which had a death rate 5.6 times greater; but like every other war in history its dangers are chiefly borne by men in physical contact with the enemy. In this case the risk load is carried by the ground forces, the enemy having no air force or navy to compete. Commentators will likely point out that death rates in Iraq are meaningless because "unlike previous wars" one cannot expect a neat ending to the fighting there. In an academic sense this point seems fair enough. But many of the wars of the 20th century were delimited chiefly by convention rather than effect. The Great War and World War 2 are now widely regarded as one upheaval punctuated by an Armistice. And 9 million people died in the Great War so that it would take another 60 million deaths to finish the job in World War 2. World War 2 "ended" but it was so closely succeeded by the oddly-named Cold War that there some senior enlisted men in Vietnam were also veterans of World War 2 and Korea.
A British analogue to the Washington Post article did a statistical analysis of British casualties in Iraq and noted that in a fight against another open-ended terrorist enemy, the IRA killed twice as many British soldiers in one year as the cream of the Jihad have managed to inflict on British troops in three.
the IRA killed twice as many soldiers in one year as Iraqi insurgents have killed in three. ... During the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1997, between the British Army and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), 763 British military personnel died. On top of that, over 300 of the British Army's allies in Northern Ireland - the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force - were killed.
In the space of one year - 1972, at the height of 'the Troubles' - the IRA killed more than twice the number of British military and police personnel as Iraqis have killed over three years. The IRA killed 103 British Army personnel, as well as 43 of Britain's local allied forces in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment. That makes a total of 146 military or police personnel killed by enemy action in one year in Northern Ireland compared with 54 killed by enemy action in Iraq in more than three years.
Crucially, "most British ministers and much of the media refused even to call the conflict in Northern Ireland a war". And this packaging, and perhaps the fact that Ireland was considered to be a vital British interest, seemed to have made all the difference.
there were few demands among opposition politicians and journalists for the troops to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland, and military families did not petition or visit Downing Street demanding that the engagement in Northern Ireland be brought to an end. This shows that the impact of casualty figures on the public consciousness is shaped more by moral and political factors than by the real facts and figures of war. So a higher number of fatalities in Northern Ireland in 1972 had a less demoralising effect on military families and the British public than has a relatively small number of deaths in Iraq over a period of three years.
Even Michael Yon wondered whether there was anything obviously special about Iraq besides was media attention. The troops in Afghanistan were fighting a terrorist enemy and the goal of creating a stable Afghanistan in an area sandwiched between Pakistan and Iran was surely be no less daunting than creating a functional Iraq. And yet:
Some troops have begun calling the battle for Afghanistan “the Forgotten War.” … When it comes to national and media attention, Iraq is not much better, but since there are roughly six or seven times more troops in Iraq, it might seem that our soldiers there would get more recognition. An Army officer told me recently that per capita casualties for Afghanistan and Iraq are nearly the same. Although six times as much coverage would be about right, mathematically, most soldiers I encountered who were serving in Iraq told me they had never seen a journalist there.
But so it goes.