Is War Hell?

January 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ann Coulter got one right. Sort of. She takes the New York Times to task for a recent article on Iraq veterans who have committed murder. (Full Coulter column here.)
The Treason Times' banner series about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans accused of murder began in January last year but was quickly discontinued as readers noticed that the Times doggedly refused to provide any statistics comparing veteran murders with murders in any other group.
She’s right about the lack of data. She’s also right that by focusing on anecdotal evidence and not using rates, the Times appears to be deliberately promoting the crazed-war-veteran stereotype.

Coulter, on the other hand, is arguing that among things that drive people to murder, a year or two patrolling the streets of Baghdad is no worse than life in these United States. Is she right?

Coulter provides some comparative stats.
From 1976 to 2005, 18- to 24-year-olds -- both male and more gentle females -- committed homicide at a rate of 29.9 per 100,000. Twenty-five- to 35-year-olds committed homicides at a rate of 15.8 per 100,000.
The Afghanistan war started in late 2001, Iraq in 2003. But Coulter uses data spanning 1976 to 2005. Using data from the Iraq war era (2003-2008) would give a somewhat lower figure, no higher than 27 per 100,000. Ideally we would adjust that by age, sex, race, and region to make it comparable to the demographics of the army.

The crucial question is: what is the rate of homicide among Iraq war veterans? To answer that, we need to know how many veterans there are and how many murders they committed. Not easy.

The Times cites 121 murders by Iraq vets, but The Times’s research on “homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans” turned up “349 cases . . . about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.” And those are just the ones the Times found by searching through court records and newspapers. So 270 is a minimum estimate. Considering that the Times included the years starting with the Afghanistan invasion of late 2001, it works out to about 40 per year.

That’s the numerator. What about the denominator?

How many veterans? Coulter gives the number of troops who have served as 1.6 million, a very high-end estimate. John Hinderaker, a conservative who launches grenades at the Times article from PowerlineBlog, proposes less than half that. “For the sake of argument, let's say that 700,000 soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have returned to the U.S. from service in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

But should we count all of them? The war-crazed-vet hypothesis is concerned with the psychological effects of combat and the daily exposure to death, mutilation, and danger. Should we count the airmen and sailors? Should we count soldiers who serve in some support capacity and never see battle or go out on patrol?

We also need to know not just the total number of returned vets; we need to know the number for each year. That 700,000 number is cumulative. There were certainly not 700,000 returned troops in 2002 or 2003.

So Ann Coulter is right, not in what she says but in the implications of what she says: to see if war is hell and whether that hell has lasting consequences on those who go there, we need good data. The trouble is that we don’t have it.

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