Sunday, December 11, 2005

Rumsfeld: Some deaths count more than others

So it has come to this.

Trying to downplay the toll of the war in Iraq, Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld is now suggesting that Americans ought to start
making a distinction between U.S. soldiers who are killed in action
in Iraq and those who die of other causes there.

On the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" Thursday night, Rumsfeld did his
usual blame-the-press spin on Iraq. When he was done, Lehrer asked
him whether part of Americans' unhappiness with the war could stem
from false expectations based on false promises from the Bush
administration. "Put the press aside for a moment," Lehrer
said. "Some people would say to you, Mr. Secretary, the problem or
the reason public opinion has sunk so low is the expectations that
the American people had for this war have not been met. Quite the
contrary, they didn't expect 2,100 Americans to die. They didn't
expect 16,000 to be wounded and they sure didn't expect 1,900 of the
2,100 to die after major combat was ended. So is that part of the
problem as well?"

Rumseld said, "It could be," but then he started to spin away. "I
will give you an interesting statistic," he said. "The number of
people who have been killed in action in Iraq is 1,664. It's a lot.
The number of people who have died over there are another 446. The
number of people who have been wounded are 16,000. Of those, 8,500
went back in to their posts, back to duty within 48 or 72 hours. Now
that's just a little refinement on what you said. But it's not
nothing -- it is a nontrivial difference between how you
characterized it."

With all due respect, Mr. Secretary, tell it to the families of the
dead soldiers. Tell the families of Philip Dobson and Marcus Futrell
and Philip Travis that we shouldn't care quite so much about their
deaths because they died in a Humvee accident south of Baghdad. Tell
the family of Daniel Pratt that his death shouldn't count so much
because he died of an apparent heart attack near Nasiriyah. Tell the
family of Ronnie D. Williams that his death is somehow different from
the others because he died when his tank rolled into a canal while he
was on patrol in Baghdad.

Yes, Mr. Secretary, some of the Americans who have died in Iraq --
the numbers are actually 461 out of 2,135 now -- have lost their
lives to something other than an improvised explosive device or a
sniper's rifle. And your point would be ... what?

Update: In the comments below, a couple of readers have raised
the "they would have died anyway" argument, suggesting that non-
hostile deaths in Iraq shouldn't be blamed on the war because those
deaths might have happened back home anyway. There's some truth to
that argument, but only some: The statistics we've seen suggest that
serving in a war zone is more dangerous than serving in the military
but not in a war zone, even when you take deaths from hostile fire
out of the equation.

A 1996 study compared the death rate of U.S. troops who were deployed
in the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War with the death rate of
U.S. troops who served at the same time but weren't deployed in the
Gulf. The result? Troops deployed in the Persian Gulf died from
natural causes at about the same rate that other troops did, but they
died from unintentional, noncombat injuries -- vehicle accidents, for
example -- at a substantially higher rate than nondeployed troops

Another, more long-term study on U.S. military mortality rates also
suggests that the nonhostile-death rate among troops in Iraq is
higher than it would be if those troops weren't there. That study,
conducted by the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, found that between 1980 and 1993, active-
military duty personnel died of nonhostile causes at the rate of
about 93 per 100,000 troops per year. If that death rate applied in
Iraq, one would expect fewer than 360 U.S. troops to have died of
nonhostile causes in the war so far. The actual number in Iraq?
Approximately 461.

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