Rumsfeld: Some deaths count more than others

The secretary of defense suggests that Americans are looking at the wrong numbers on Iraq.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 9, 2005 2:32PM (EST)

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 did.

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.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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