Spinning war deaths

Alicia Colon plays a numbers game with military war deaths; Salon checks in with her about it.

Published February 21, 2007 10:21PM (EST)

In her column Tuesday, the New York Sun's Alicia Colon suggested that there really aren't as many U.S. military deaths in Iraq as the liberal media makes it seem. In fact, she said, fewer soldiers have died in Iraq than died in a four-year period under President Clinton. It's not a novel argument, as she readily admitted in an interview with Salon today -- but neither is it as relevant as she made it sound.

"The total military dead in the Iraq war between 2003 and this month stands at about 3,133. This is tragic, as are all deaths due to war, and we are facing a cowardly enemy unlike any other in our past that hides behind innocent citizens," Colon wrote. "Each death is blazoned in the headlines of newspapers and Internet sites. What is never compared is the number of military deaths during the Clinton administration: 1,245 in 1993; 1,109 in 1994; 1,055 in 1995; 1,008 in 1996. That's 4,417 deaths in peacetime but, of course, who's counting?"

With a tip of the hat to Andrew Sullivan, who has already done some of the legwork on this, we'd like to point out the irrelevance of the statistics Colon cites. In fact, when you look at the data provided by the Defense Department, you'll notice that almost none of the deaths during the Clinton administration -- just 76 over an eight-year period -- were from hostile action or terrorism. The rest were the result of accident, homicide, illness or suicide or were of an as-yet-undetermined nature.

These noncombat deaths have not simply stopped happening. There are still noncombat deaths going on in the military, and they are, for the most part, kept as a separate tally from the deaths in Iraq. (To be fair, some of the deaths -- about 16 percent -- that have occurred in Iraq are similarly not the result of hostile action.) The absolute number of deaths that have happened as a result of our invasion of Iraq may not be astoundingly high, but they are still deaths entirely above and beyond those that would happen in the course of normal peacetime military business, and that's not something Colon factors into her argument at all. Military deaths have spiked upward from the final years of the Clinton administration. In 1999, there were 796 total military deaths; in 2000, there were 758; in 2003, there were 1,410; and in 2004, there were 1,887.

In an e-mail to Salon, Colon said that she was aware that there were separate statistics, writing, "I only used the war dead toll because that is the number being thrown at the public by the liberal media and bloggers. They are not distinguishing between hostile and non hostile because that might bring in comparisions [sic] that blunt their 'bring em home' agenda. Apparently, they're the only ones who can play with numbers. When I introduce mine, there's a big brouhaha. Did you know that in Carter's last year, 1980, the death toll [of] 2,392 was higher than any Bush year?"

Colon is right about that last bit, but there is again a statistical problem with what she says. The absolute number of deaths in 1980 was higher than in any Bush year, true, but the number of deaths as a percentage of total military members was higher in 2004, the first full year of the war in Iraq, than it was in 1980.

And there's another question about Colon's column -- why cite the military deaths under Bill Clinton? The absolute number of deaths under Clinton is lower than it was under either Ronald Reagan or the first Bush administration. Asked this by Salon, Colon responded, "Clinton's the media darling. Isn't that when we first really discovered that there might be possibly a liberal bias?" It's also worth noting that Colon picked the worst four years for military deaths under Clinton -- in fact, under the Clinton administration, military deaths were in a decline from the numbers under Presidents Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Commenting on Colon's column, Sullivan wrote, "It is perfectly possible to make an intellectually honest case that the media pay too much attention to military deaths in wartime. Alicia Colon didn't manage it." We're inclined to agree.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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