As you might expect, the study (which was released last June) shows a spike in military deaths since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A total of 1,228 military personnel died that year, followed by 1,874 in 2004, 1,942 in 2005, and a total of 1,858 last year. Readers will note that the study includes all fatalities among active duty personnel, full-time guard and reserve members and selected full-time reservists. The totals include both combat deaths and service members who died from other causes, including accidents, diseases and even violent crime.
Describing the study as eye-opening would be an understatement. While the media (and war critics) have emphasized the growing number of military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, those figures obscure some very startling facts. Despite the toll of combat operations in the Middle East, the number of military fatalities since the Iraq invasion was actually lower than during the comparable period in the 1980s, when combat deployments were extremely limited.
Here are the death totals for each year during the selected periods (as calculated by the CRS), along with the total number of military personnel who were serving full-time:
YEAR//TOTAL MILITARY FTE(a)//NBR OF U.S. Military Deaths
(a) FTE = Full Time Equivalent personnel, based on DoD fiscal year-end totals
Now, here are the comparable totals for the most recent, four-year period:
Source: CRS Report for Congress, American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, Updated June 29, 2007
Military death totals from the mid-1980s may seem a bit surprising at first glance, but they actually underscore an inescapable fact: military duty is often hazardous, even in times of peace. Of the 2,465 military members that died in 1983, more than half (1,413) perished in accidents, many of them training-related. Operating high-performance aircraft, training with live ammunition or working on the deck of an aircraft carrier are but a few of the dangerous jobs performed by military personnel on a daily basis. Despite extensive safety precautions, accidents invariably occur, and claim the lives of service members.
The accidental deaths also include fatalities from traffic mishaps, long a problem among junior personnel. During the 1980s, that trend was compounded by a more tolerant attitude toward alcohol on military installations, which resulted in more DUI crashes. When the Pentagon adopted a "no tolerance" policy for drinking and driving--and banned alcohol sales to personnel under the age of 21--the number of DUI related offenses (and fatalities) began to decrease.
In fact, the numbers presented in the CRS study are a testament to the effectiveness of military flight, ground and weapons safety programs. Thanks to those efforts (along with better training and equipment) military deaths due to accidents between 2003 and 2006 were 2-3 times lower than in the mid-1980s. The drop in accidental deaths more than offset the jump in combat fatalities, which increased steadily after the invasion of Iraq, then declined after the recent troop surge.
Four years of combat in Iraq (and six years of fighting in Afghanistan) make the CRS figures truly noteworthy. You don't need to be General Patton to understand that war increases the chances for mishaps; the stress of combat--or simply being in a war zone--can raise chances for vehicle crashes, weapons accidents and other incidents that claim the lives of military personnel. After climbing slightly in 2004 and 2005, the number of service members who died in accidents dropped to 465 last year, which was slightly below the average for the last decade (498).
More impressively, combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan comprise a tiny fraction of those who have served, despite intense combat in places like Fallujah, Ramidi and Baghdad. As we noted in a recent post, the losses of U.S. World War II bomber crews on a single raid (Ploesti, Schweinfurt) equalled months of fighting in Iraq, or years in Afghanistan. It's also worth noting that the CRS statistics do not include totals for 2007. Recently proclaimed as the "bloodiest year yet" for U.S. forces in Iraq, the final figures for this year will also reflect a sharp drop in combat deaths in recent months, another measure that the troop surge is working.
In offering any analysis of this type, we're always reminded of Mark Twain's famous maxim about "lie, damned lies and statistics." But it's hard to refute the numbers from that CRS study, or the trends now evident in Iraq.