Monday, November 19, 2007

Political Agendas Make For Bad Math

This story has been making the rounds among the conspiracy theorists I have been following, and it has finally annoyed me to the point that I will take the time to debunk it. An author on Counterpunch named, Mike Whitney, a fellow Washingtonian no less, is claiming that dramatically more US soldiers have died from Iraq than the published figures, because of the suicides of veterans which are not covered in the statistics.

The Pentagon was covering up the real magnitude of the "suicide epidemic". Following an exhaustive investigation of veterans' suicide data collected from 45 states; CBS discovered that in 2005 alone "there were at least 6,256 among those who served in the armed forces. That's 120 each and every week in just one year."

That is not a typo. Active and retired military personnel, mostly young veterans between the ages of 20 to 24, are returning from combat and killing themselves in record numbers. We can assume that "multiple-tours of duty" in a war-zone have precipitated a mental health crisis of which the public is entirely unaware and which the Pentagon is in total denial.If we add the 6,256 suicide victims from 2005 to the "official" 3,865 reported combat casualties; we get a sum of 10,121. Even a low-ball estimate of similar 2004 and 2006 suicide figures, would mean that the total number of US casualties from the Iraq war now exceed 15,000.

To use his own term. Baloney. The logic and math behind this is so bad that it would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. What Mr. Whitney is missing, is that the 6,256 is among all veterans, not just veterans of the Iraq War. In 2005, according to the Census Bureau, there were 24.5 million veterans in America, while the number of Americans who had both managed to serve in Iraq (which just started in 2003), come back and get discharged into the veteran population would have most likely have been in the mere tens of thousands. Even if you counted every single soldier who served, at 120,000 per rotation, two rotations at that time, that would be a mere 1% of all veterans.

The stupid thing is, Mr. Whitney could have actually come up with a reasonably accurate measure. The original CBS article he links to gives the suicide rate for veterans:

It found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 than non-vets. (Veterans committed suicide at the rate of between 18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000, compared to other Americans, who did so at the rate of 8.9 per 100,000.) One age group stood out.

Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age. (The suicide rate for non-veterans is 8.3 per 100,000, while the rate for veterans was found to be between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)

So using our extremely high end estimate of 240,000, with a rate of 18.7 per 100,000 on the low end, and 31.9 on the high end that gives us between 45 and 93 suicides per year. Of course using the numbers they give us, even the same population of non-veterans would be expected to have around 20 suicides per year. So even for the last 3 years this means that an "excess" of between 75 and 219 suicides among the Iraq veteran population (although the number of vets would also go up too, but it was an extreme high end to begin with). A tragic number no less, but a couple of orders of magnitude below what this quack came up with.