Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The War is Not Worth It Meme

A story by Avram Goldstein of Bloomberg.com says that suicides among Iraq war veterans could "eventually" exceed the death toll by combat. The statistics bear that out, but the comparison is misleading. I don't know if the spin was provided by Goldstein or by his source, Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH). But that prediction could have been made ahead of time, if we had known how few American troops would die in Iraq.

The spin of the story continues the meme that we should never enter into war, because even if troops aren't killed in battle, serving in war raises their risk of suicide.

Now, I'm not discounting the awful tragedy of suicide, made even more tragic when someone so deserving of honor is involved. But the story makes it seem as though the reason war veteran suicides will top combat deaths is that their suicide rate is so high. The suicide rate among all male veterans is twice as high as for civilians, and we can expect the same for veterans who serve in Iraq.

Even the same number of civilians who have never been to war would have more suicide deaths than the 4000+ who have thus far died in Iraq.

The suicide rate in the United States is about 17 per year per 100,000. Considering that 1.6 million troops have served in Iraq, that means we would expect about 16 * 17 = 272 suicides per year for Iraq veterans, if they were typical of the population. Over the next 40 years, that would easily top the figures for those killed in action. Since casualty rates are expected to continue to be much lower at the tail end of the war, these figures will be even more pronounced.

To make these two statistical measures relate accurately, we should say not that the suicide rate will be higher than the combat death toll, but should note how few who serve in Iraq will actually die there. Of the approximately 1,600,000 who have served in Iraq, 4500 dying is a loss of

(4500 / 1,600,000) * 100 = 0.28125, or 0.28%

Both government and concerned citizens should do whatever we can to help the men and women who have put themselves in harm's way for our safety. But we can do that without twisting the facts to fit our agendas.

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