Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Casualties of War

The D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia (PBS photo)

In their never-ending hunt for bad news in the War on Terror, MSM outlets have left no stone unturned—or story angle unexplored. Not long ago, The New York Times determined that combat duty had turned scores of veterans into deranged killers, based on its “analysis” of police and court records nationwide.

That sounded rather chilling until bloggers pointed out a little problem with the NYT narrative. In their rush to uncover killings and other acts of violence by combat vets, the paper (conveniently) forgot to compare those numbers to the general population. When that contrast is made, the story changes dramatically. Turns out that military vets are less likely to commit murders and other violent crimes than their civilian peers.

Now, USA Today is taking a different tack on the “toll of war” theme. Based on their review of Pentagon casualty lists, the paper concludes that some three dozen American cities, all with populations of more than 100,000, have not lost a service member in Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to the paper, that statistic proves “how sporadically the war has affected much of the American home front.” Various “experts” quoted by reporters Rick Hampson and Paul Overburg suggest that casualty patterns are a reflection of “where the military does its recruiting,” i.e., in small towns and rural areas. By comparison, they believe that some urban areas have suffered fewer casualties because “cities tend to have more viable economies than those [rural] places."

In other words, recruits from the sticks enlist in the armed forces because they no other options. Paging John Kerry.

And, if you take that analysis to its “logical” conclusion, one might conclude that the hinterlands are bearing an undue burden in the War on Terror. That would seem to be the case, particularly when larger cities like Oakland, California and Fort Lauderdale, Florida haven’t lost a single military member in combat since 2001.

But, it gets better. Here’s the take of William O’Hare, a University of New Hampshire demographer who has studied U.S. deaths in Iraq:

"There's a big random element in this…"Even in a city of 100,000, you're talking about a fairly small pool of recruit-age people."

Ya think?

Fact is, there is an awful randomness in combat deaths, and they reflect more than geography or economic opportunities. Depicted on a map, the town of Brook Park, Ohio (near Cleveland) would seem particularly hard-hit. During a five-day stretch in August 2005, 19 young men from the community died in Iraq. All were members of a Marine Reserve unit based in Brook Park. Fourteen died in one of the war’s deadliest roadside bombings, and five more perished while on sniper duty. Except for those terrible events, the war toll in Brook Park might rival that of Oakland or Fort Lauderdale.

On a personal note, we know several members of a Mississippi National Guard unit that pulled tough duty in Iraq a couple of years ago. Despite the hazards of daily patrols and frequent bomb attacks, the military police outfit completed its year-long deployment with only a few minor casualties. The Wisconsin unit that replaced wasn’t as lucky. Within a week of taking over their sector, five Wisconsin guardsmen died in combat, on the same streets that the Mississippians patrolled, largely without incident.

We are also reminded that young men (and women) join the military for a variety of reasons, including love of country and a desire to serve. Those factors also figure into the eventual casualty totals. Perhaps the desire to serve and sacrifice is stronger in small towns or rural regions than, say, Berkeley.

And maybe it’s easier to find recruits who meet military standards in those areas. Talk an armed forces recruiter, and they will tell you that cities are tough markets for more than economic reasons. Urban areas have higher crime rates, with more young people involved in drugs and criminal activities.

While much has been made of the military “lowering” recruiting standards, there is a limit to conduct that can be waivered. If fewer young people from cities are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may be that fewer are eligible for military service. In fact, a 2006 Heritage Foundation study of military recruits found that poor areas—including urban neighborhoods--are proportionately underrepresented in the armed services (emphasis ours).

The same analysis also revealed that military enlistees are wealthier and better educated than their civilian peers. And, appropriately enough, Heritage researchers found that during one year of the study period (2003-2005), not a single resident of Congressman Charles Rangel’s Harlem district joined the armed forces. Congressman Rangel, you’ll recall, has long—and falsely--claimed that minorities and the poor are bearing the brunt of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But such inconvenient facts are lost on the MSM, because they contradict long-established templates about “who fights” America’s wars. With that in mind, we can only imagine how USA Today would have covered the war news from Bedford, Virginia in 1944. Of the 35 soldiers from the town who took part in the Normandy invasion, 21 died on D-Day, including 19 who perished in just 15 minutes of fighting on Omaha Beach.

Bedford’s staggering casualties represented the highest per-capita loss of any American community during World War II. That doesn't mitigate the death toll from Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does provide a little perspective--something that's a bit lacking in the USA Today article.


halojones-fan said...

The "news" article is ridiculous.

Career armed-forces members typically move close to their duty station--meaning that when several members of a particular unit are killed, all of them turn out to be "from the same area". Well, no duh; they all live next to the base where they work!

And even National Guard members will be assigned to bases in the general area where they live. So obviously if a Wisconsin National Guard unit loses some people, then suddenly "most of the casualties this week came from Wisconsin, few of them came from other states".

SMSgt Mac said...

Good catch. Statistical clusters and gaps nearly always happen in truly random distributions of large populations. I'll make certain to forward this to my co-worker who teaches (among other subjects) college stats. These days he's having no problems finding contemporary examples of poor use of statistics courtesy of the MSM - they make great teaching tools.