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Tilting at Windmills

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September 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

AUGUST CASUALTIES....I'm really, really going to try to avoid getting sucked into posting endlessly about Iraq casualty data, since I genuinely believe that day-to-day changes don't tell us much about long-term trends. And as near as I can tell, the long-term trends in Iraq haven't changed much in the past few months, surge or no surge.

However, since I've been posting quite a bit about this lately, here's one more data point: McClatchy has the latest figures for U.S. combat deaths today, and they show a welcome decline. They also show why these numbers are tricky to tabulate and track. The August total of 57 fatalities includes only combat deaths, which is why McClatchy's number is lower than the one I posted on Friday. My chart is based on Juan Cole's figures, which are taken from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, and the ICCC totals include 19 fatalities from a pair of helicopter crashes. These don't count as "combat" deaths, but obviously they are troop casualties. Whether you count them is a matter of methodology, not a disagreement over the numbers themselves.

In any case, those are the numbers for August: 57 combat fatalities, 81 total U.S. fatalities, and 85 total coalition fatalities. Combat deaths are down compared to last August, while total deaths are up. And with that, I'm going to try to cool it on the casualty figures and go back to spending my time on the underlying political, confessional, ethnic, and tribal issues that are driving the violence in Iraq.

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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June-July-August 2003: 113 Americans killed

June-July-August 2004: 162 Americans killed

June-July-August 2005: 217 Americans killed

June-July-August 2006: 169 Americans killed

June-July-August 2007: 261 Americans killed

(source: icasualties.org)

bush defenders HATE math....

Posted by: mr. irony on September 2, 2007 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Iraq Coalition Casualties has a page where it separates troop deaths into hostile and nonhostile. Here's the June-July-August 'hostile' deaths for each year:

2003: 75
2004: 153
2005: 192
2006: 158
2007: 222

So there may be a decline from previous months in 2007, but even so, more American troops have been killed by hostile fire/IED/whatever this summer than in any past summer in Iraq.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on September 2, 2007 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

And with that, I'm going to try to cool it on the casualty figures and go back to spending my time on the underlying political, confessional, ethnic, and tribal issues that are driving the violence in Iraq.

Good plan. As Col. Steven Boylan, the Public Affairs Officer for Gen. David Petraeus, pointed out, we should be concentrating on how Bush and the troops are rebuilding Iraq in to a free and democratic state rather than be distracted by a smattering of bad things that happen in a large country such as Iraq.

"Military commanders in Baghdad would like to see more coverage of nation-building efforts and less on the "kinetic" war the one involving guns, mortars, missiles, bombs, blood and bodies."
"But Boylan contends the business of bolstering Iraqs security, economy, emerging political institutions and critical infrastructure like water, power and sewer systems isnt getting its due. Hes right. And if it isnt flashy or doesnt lend itself to TV, its still a huge story."

Posted by: Al on September 2, 2007 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

the ICCC totals include 19 fatalities from a pair of helicopter crashes. These don't count as "combat" deaths

I'm sure that that will be a relief to their families....

Posted by: Disputo on September 2, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

This is just another way to cook the books for Bush.
The number for Aug-06 was 65 American, 1 UK. In Aug-07, it was 81 American, 4 UK.
That is the number of soldiers who died for the Iraq war. Fudging the numbers as the Bush regime does about every data point is to disrespect the sacrifice of the troops and the people.

Posted by: Mike on September 2, 2007 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Btw, the question is whether the surge is leading to less US deaths. Ignoring all questions about whether that is even an appropriate metric, if the helicopter crashes occurred during missions that were surge related, then they most definitely have to be attributed to the surge.

Posted by: Disputo on September 2, 2007 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

It does not really matter what the body count is. What matters is Americans are killing Iraqis in Iraq. America's occupation of Iraq is a heinous crime that no rationalization can legitimize.

Posted by: Brojo on September 2, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Long-running worthwhile graphs
here

Posted by: joel hanes on September 2, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

What Disputo said. Leaving off the helicopter crashes is blatant. Helos are used to move troops because of the prevalence of IEDs and dangers involved in moving them over land.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on September 2, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

This counting of deaths, and even more the division of such deaths into 'combat' and 'non-combat' categories, is a ridiculous distraction.

We cannot allow the questions to be: How many people died, what kind of people died and how did they die?

The questions are: When are we going to end the military occupation of Iraq, what are we going to leave behind and what do we need to do to begin the recovery from this military and foreign policy disaster?

Numbers and 'benchmarks' are easily manipulated to create the illusion of progress. But the only real 'progress' will be when it ends.

Posted by: James E. Powell on September 2, 2007 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

What's amazing, looking at those numbers, is that 2006 was a much better year than this year--and it was a better year than 2005.

So, basically, 2006 was the "year of progress." All of which was lost this year.

Looks like they started their propaganda push a year late. I guess the Bush Administration stabbed THEMSELVES in the back.

Posted by: anonymous on September 2, 2007 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

what do we need to do to begin the recovery from this military and foreign policy disaster?

If it was up to me, we would have a war-crimes trial and a public hanging on the mall. But thats just me.

Posted by: Curmudgeon on September 2, 2007 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

Boy they love to kick the British to the curb by keeping them out of the data as well. 2 were killed Jun-Aug 06, 19 in Jun-Aug 07. How's that for thanking them for the help?

Posted by: padcrasher on September 2, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Michael Bersin at Show Me Progress has a great post this morning on media complicity, and takes the KC Star to task for being a willful propaganda tool.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on September 2, 2007 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

In addition, helicopter "crashes" are often reclassified as combat casualties weeks or months after the event. For some reason, the rule seems to be that you assume the event was a crash until forced to say otherwise, even though it almost always turns out to be bullets in the engine or rotors.

Posted by: JD on September 2, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Al does have a point - Follow the paint, follow the paint - Why aren't the reporters in Iraq following those Sherwin-Williams cans to all of those new schools?

And kudos to that fellow in Portland, OR this morning - First person, I've seen flying the American flag correctly on a vehicle - I have seen many so-called patriots and some vets from the Korean War and Nam flying it incorrectly on the left side of their vehicles - Well, this was flying on the correct side, i.e., the right - But, the hoot was, and kudos to him, he was flying it in distress.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on September 2, 2007 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Four years and billions of dollars after we invaded, the electrical, water, sewer, and oil production are all functioning below pre war levels. Looks like we're doing one helluva job rebuilding the infrastructure. If only the media would focus on the good news. Good news? Good news? Where is it Al? I'm having trouble bringing it into focus.

Posted by: sparky on September 2, 2007 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Is there some reason we don't demand that American contractor deaths be included in the hostile/nonhostile deaths?

Or that we aren't counting wounded as well?

My understanding is that many of the wounded are improperly counted as non-combat injuries.

Posted by: jerry on September 2, 2007 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, the bar graphs you are linking to are definitely improving. Now to get a feel for the overall trend line.. if we could see the bar graph you've got currently go all the way back to March 2003 AND show the bars in two colors-the first part RED showing combat deaths and then stocked on top a BLUE portion showing the non-combat deaths. THEN... take the same data and time and duplicate it just below and adjust it to combat and non-combat deaths per thousand (to accommodate troop level changes) and use the same colors and schemes.

Besides all that I think the downward trend in casualties has more to do with making nice with the Sunni tribes than the success of the surge strategy and the increase in force levels. The non-AQ Sunni insurgents are the ones that cause most of our combat deaths, BTW. This relaxation of the death rate is only going to last as long as we *continue* making nice with the Sunni tribes AND the Shia don't start an increase in attacks on our forces. I wonder a bit if we will wind up as a buffer between Iran and the Shia Arabs in Iraq and continue to supply the Sunni tribes with arms... until we can get a "government" in Baghdad that we can be "happy" with.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on September 2, 2007 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

The August total of 57 fatalities includes only combat deaths, which is why McClatchy's number is lower than the one I posted on Friday.

...the ICCC totals include 19 fatalities from a pair of helicopter crashes. These don't count as "combat" deaths...

So if you subtract the non hostile deaths (7) from the August 2006 total of 65 you get 58. Does anyone seriously think that 57 for Aug. 2007 is a significant decrease from 58 for Aug. 2006?

Posted by: Dave Howard on September 2, 2007 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

In the interest of intellectual honesty, there are about 30K more troops in-country, and they are no longer on bases but out in the neighborhoods. So the exptrapolations could be made...

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on September 2, 2007 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

Just want to toss in another argument that to somehow not count crash fatalities is absurd. As a former aircraft maintenance person I can tell you: We did our best, always, but in a combat situation maintenance was not always what it ought to have been, leading to accidents that might not have occurred when maintenance was less rushed.

Which doesn't make what Brojo said at 2:26 wrong...then, or now.

Posted by: thersites on September 2, 2007 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

thersites,

Interesting point - Does anyone know how early on "pilot error" Mohawk crashes in Nam were listed? When they first brought the Mohawks from Ft Huachua, there were several crashes, not all attributed to enemy fire.

Friend of mine was shot down in one - Saw the firing from below, but, the new Captain flying in the left seat wouldn't change elevation. Fortunately, they were picked up safely.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on September 2, 2007 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

The idea that non-combat deaths and injuries should not be counted as casualties in theatre is as astonishingly manipulative as it is appallingly self-delusional. Consider the following military case study:

In the spring of 1942, the Japanese Army launched a major offensive in Papua New Guinea toward the colonial capital of Port Moresby. With only two Australian infantry brigades opposing their advance, Port Moresby's fate appeared sealed.

Surprisingly, after the Japanese brushed aside the Australian defenders to seize all the major passes through the Owen Stanley Mountains, which was the last natural obstacles blocking their approach, their offensive ground to a rather sudden halt. The Japanese never got to Port Moresby, and their ground units in Papua began to disintegrate organizationally.

We now know, through the Japanese military's meticulous record-keepng, that an outbreak of shigella -- bacterial dysentery -- swept through Japanese ranks (this in the days before the use of sulpha drugs became widespread), killing upwards of 1/3 of the soldiers and severely debilitating the majority of the survivors.

Those Japanese soldiers were just as dead or debilitated, than had they been casualties caused by small arms or artillery fire, or aerial or naval bombardment. Are we now to blithely assume that illness or accident isn't just as an effective corrosive element upon a given military unit's overall capacity as any IED or a sniper?

That the Bush administration won't allow public consideration of non-combat personnel losses, within the overall context of their so-called "Petraeus Report" assessing the effectiveness of our perpetual military operations in Iraq, turns Gen. Petraeus' pending appearance before Congress into yet another dog-and-pony show, and is a coldly calculated insult to the collective widom of the American people.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on September 2, 2007 at 6:16 PM | PERMALINK

Counting deaths minimizes the scope of the carnage. What matters is casualties, which includes injuries as well as deaths, and is a much more realistic picture of the level of violence.

The ratio of casualties to deaths in this war is 8 to 1 or higher. In Vietnam, the ratio was about 2 to 1, and all previous wars had a lower ratio than that. Combat medicine and armor are tremendously more effective than they have been in the past, so the number of deaths drastically understates how intense the danger is in Iraq.

Posted by: DMoore on September 2, 2007 at 6:16 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, one way to lower the death count is to simply omit a certain number of deaths. I wish I could do that to my income, when computing taxes.

In any case, comparing only "non-casualty" deaths in 2007 to deaths from all causes in 2006, the number of Americans killed just in combat in 2007 is still statistically significantly higher than the number killed from all causes in in 2006. August is the only month where fewer Americans were killed in combat in 2007 than were killed of all causes in 2006. (This is true even when one takes the troop strength into account.)

Though one can focus on the "trend" of the steady dropping of American casualties over the past four months, there was a similar trend from May to August in 2006. So while one hopes that it is indeed a positive sign that Petraeus's counterinsurgency tactics are working, it seems to me that one can't interpret the numbers until the trend has been sustained for several more months.

...And this is how Bushco operates; its apologists survive by pleading for more time. And because, deep down, most of us would prefer the story to have a happy ending, to leave Iraq stable, they get enough of us every time. It's like the break-up of a very unhappy relationship; He keeps coming back and promising that this time will be different, and she keeps taking him back, because she wants to believe things will be better this time. Sooner or later, the break-up will come. It's time to listen again to "I will survive" by Gloria Gaynor.

Posted by: PTate in FR on September 2, 2007 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

[Persistent, intellectually dishonest trolling deleted.]

Posted by: mhr on September 2, 2007 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK

The focus on US combat deaths is typical of the narcissism that got us in this mess in the first place. From a military point of view it's completely irrelevant whether 50 or 70 or 100 American soldiers died in a particular month. It's not as if these numbers undercut American military strength. The Iraq war is politically unsustainable, but if the politics were different we could maintain more or less the status quo in Iraq indefinitely, although it would require currently politcally impossible things like raising taxes and quite a bit more backdoor conscription. And in fact that is the Bush administration plan, to the extent there is one: staying in Iraq forever, making perpetual "progress," of the sort we're seeing now, i.e., an eternal treadmill.

But the more important objection to this focus on US combat deaths is that it treats every US death as being vastly more important than 100 dead Iraqis, which, when you think about it, is grossly immoral, given that those Iraqis are dying because of us, directly and indirectly.

Posted by: Paul Campos on September 2, 2007 at 8:39 PM | PERMALINK

The military always classifies helicopter crashes as equipment malfunction unless the Iraqis get to the crash site first and take souveniers. Whether the crash was from enemy fire or in fact equipment failure make no difference to the dead soldiers. The effort to take out non-hostile fire deaths from the totals is just dishonest, plain and simple.

If you will recall, when Carter sent in a rescue mission to get the hostages in Tehran, the helicopters either had mechanical issues due to the sand, and the ones that carried on ran into each other in the night because of the low visibility, from the sand.

They were there because BushCo put them there and they are dead now, so they count.

Posted by: coltergeist on September 2, 2007 at 9:00 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

Instead of complicated charts and bar graphs comparing casualties from various months and years, why don’t you SIMPLIFY the statistics in a way that would drive Bush crazy? Just keep track of all of the casualties (U.S. and coalition deaths and injuries, Iraqi deaths and injuries, displaced Iraqi people, etc.) that have resulted since G.W. Bush decided to ignore the message of the voters in November of 2006.

Bush has ignored the advice of everyone, including the Iraq Study Group. Bush OWNS this war and people should be reminded every single day of the huge toll in blood and cost in dollars that has been paid since November of 2006.

A second reminder should tally up all of the casualties that have occurred since the Republicans blocked the Democratic vote on the war in March of 2007.

Make a color bar graph that breaks down the numbers for the various casualties: one color for Bush since November 2006 and one for the Republicans in Congress since March 2007. Then update it weekly as a CONSTANT reminder for voters that it is Bush and the Republicans who are keeping the troops in Iraq.


Posted by: emmarose on September 2, 2007 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

Bottom line: August is one month. The overall numbers are relatively small. In the past, the variability from month to month has been quite large, and, so far as people can make out, the changes often effectively random.

Can we be intelligent enough to wait for a trend of long enough duration that it might plausibly be statistically significant?

Posted by: frankly0 on September 3, 2007 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

frankly0 -- Agree that one month--or even three or four--does not make a trend. But there is enough data from the last four years to establish a statistically valid trend, and that trend is not good: coalition casualties (hostile only or total) trending up; Iraqi civilian casualties trending up.

Is this period (the surge) different enough to warrant ignoring the past and those long term trends? Part of me hopes that this is different and suggests withholding judgment; the other part of me looks at the long term trends and thinks, "it's different, but not enough".

Posted by: has407 on September 3, 2007 at 12:20 AM | PERMALINK

Couldn't a helicopter crash be the result of "wear and tear" on the helicopter, or "fatigue" of its engine or propellers or whatever, and therefore be a direct result of our envolvement in Iraq for four and half years (!)? And as such, make it legit to lay those 19 deaths at the feet of George W, Bush, even if the deaths weren't "combat deaths"?

Posted by: Robert Earle on September 3, 2007 at 12:35 AM | PERMALINK

Robert Earle: Couldn't a helicopter crash be the result of "wear and tear" on the helicopter, or "fatigue" of its engine or propellers or whatever, and therefore be a direct result of our envolvement [sic] in Iraq for four and half years (!)? And as such, make it legit to lay those 19 deaths at the feet of George W, Bush, even if the deaths weren't "combat deaths"?

Yes, and "non-hostile" fatalities (as well as wounded) follow the same trends as "hostile fatalities". While I think it's disingenuous to differentiate them when it comes to assessing the overall cost of the war, the differentiation is important.

No death is unimportant, but understanding the cause of those deaths is important in order to take corrective action. To the DoD's credit (assuming they're not cooking the books), non-hostile fatalities over the last four years are decreasing as a percentage of total fatalities. That is as it should be: the underlying causes are being identified and corrected.

Posted by: has407 on September 3, 2007 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

It does not really matter what the body count is. What matters is Americans are killing Iraqis in Iraq. America's occupation of Iraq is a heinous crime that no rationalization can legitimize.

Two questions:

How many Iraqis in the past year were actually killed by Coalition troops? Hint: In year four of the war, according to IraqBodyCount.org, of the 26,540 Iraqi civilians killed, the Coalition accounted for 536, or about two percent.

Now, how many Iraqis in the past year were killed by people who would be very likely to kill far more of them if we weren't there?

This is leaving aside the million or so Iraqis who died by war, neglect, genocide and terror during Saddam's regime. How many does that average out to per year?

Posted by: harry on September 3, 2007 at 1:17 AM | PERMALINK

harry: Now, how many Iraqis in the past year were killed by people who would be very likely to kill far more of them if we weren't there?

A hard question to answer, but the nominal answer is: very few. Or have you forgotten the crimp put on Saddam by Desert Fox? Saddam's campaign against Iraqi's had been effectively neutered.

This is leaving aside the million or so Iraqis who died by war, neglect, genocide and terror during Saddam's regime. How many does that average out to per year?

Let's not leave them aside. But let's be clear about why and under whose hand they died. There were those who perished in Saddam's vengence after Gulf I. There were those who perished due to sanctions. There were those who perished due to combat operations in early 2003. And there are those who have perished since.

Dead is dead. It doesn't matter if it's because of direct coalition activity, or because of collateral effects. If you want to use body counts as the metric, then Iraq was far better off since Desert Fox and pre-2003 that it has been since. Find another argument.

Posted by: has407 on September 3, 2007 at 1:41 AM | PERMALINK

The overall numbers are relatively small.

Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and millions of displaced and traumatized Iraqis are not relatively small population samples. These numbers equate with the dreaded ideologically inspired industrialized scourges of the recent Twentieth Century, and I think history will record them as such. Putting our huge military into play guarantees unbelievable amounts of suffering and death.

Posted by: Brojo on September 3, 2007 at 3:12 AM | PERMALINK

"Combat deaths are down compared to last August,... "

WTF Kevin?? Can **you** do math? The McClatchy graph shows combat deaths "Down" by, what?, 1 person compared to last year?

And that was preceded by a July death that exceeded the previous year, & June death toll that exceeded the previous year, & a May Death toll that exceeded the previous year, & so on ad nauseum.

And you take the wishy-washy stance you are going to "cool it" on all these scary "casualty figures".

The so-called "welcome decline", as you phrase it, will not last - it didn't last in 2006 & it didnt last in 2005, nor 2004.

The only thing that's gonna stop the killing & maiming is that these guys are bound to draw down their cache of explosives sooner or later.

Posted by: sidewinder on September 3, 2007 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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