Debunking Lies about Military Fatalities by the (Actual) Numbers

I received an email forward from my mom this morning with the Subject: Surprising Facts, which claimed the hard to believe conclusion that there were more deaths of military personnel under the Clinton administration than that of George W. Bush. The conclusion was backed up with convincing looking “facts” in the email, but it still violated common sense. So, I decided to go to the source and see for myself. Unfortunately, what I found wasn’t much of a surprise — the supposed “facts” were lies and the conclusion they supported was simply not true.

Instead of 14,107 deaths under Clinton and 7,932 deaths under George W. Bush as claimed in the email, the actual totals from the Department of Defense are 7,500 for Clinton and 10,946 for W. More on the actual numbers in a minute, but first I’d like to talk about one of the worst (and most potent) forms of disinformation — the email chain-letter.

Jessica Gray, whose husband, Staff Sergeant Yance T. Gray, was killed in Baghdad last year while serving with the 82nd Airborne. Photo by Platon

Chain emails are totally unaccountable, and thus a favorite tool of slimy political operatives to spread disinformation (deliberately false or misleading information) they can’t be caught spreading. It is a horribly underhanded tactic, and a special place in Hell should be reserved for those who make use of it.

But, they continue to do it because it works. And it works because people are too lazy to check the facts. If you know how to use email, you know how to use Google (or Yahoo! Search). But, even smart people, like my mom and her friends, blindly forward this crap on — thereby personally endorsing the lies and becoming complicit in their creators’ attempts to deceive the American public. In this case, a quick web search for “military fatalities” returns two pages debunking this specific email as well as the real data from the Department of Defense, all above the fold. Sites like the non-partisan exist for just this purpose, and it really only takes a minute to check these things out before forwarding them on and spreading lies to your friends.

So next time before you hit that Forward button in your email, please do yourself, your friends, and this country a favor by taking two minutes to check the facts you’re about to put your name on.

I found this email particularly repugnant because it appeals to our appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice made by brave American servicemen and women and then dishonors their memories by distorting the truth about their lives lost. So, I wanted to dig deeper than someone else’s response to the email and do my own analysis.

All the official data I accumulated is direct from the Department of Defense, and here is the full spreadsheet I put together to come up with the below conclusions. (DataVis geeks, knock yourselves out!)

Ronald Reagan (1981-1988):
Total Military Deaths – 17,201
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.09%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 353 

George H. W. Bush (1989-1992):
Total Military Deaths – 6,223
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.07%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 172

Bill Clinton (1993-2000):
Total Military Deaths – 7,500
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.06%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 76 

George W. Bush (2001-2007):
Total Military Deaths – 10,946
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.10%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 3,513 

However, the absolute total numbers aren’t particularly illustrative of policy differences. Over the 28 year period for which there is data, only 9.30% of the military fatalities were classified as Sergeant Tim Johannsen and his wife, Jacquelyne Kay, in a rehabilitation unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Photo by Platon for The New Yorker resulting from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack. Since the vast majority of deaths in this period are classified as Accidents (53.22% ) followed by Illness (17.54%) and Self Inflicted (13.61%), the total number of deaths in a given year is more an indication of the total size of the military at that time than anything else. What is most likely the best metric for understanding the effect of policy differences is deaths as a percentage of the total military, which was an average of 0.08% over the entire period. By this metric, George W. Bush’s policies have been the most costly (0.10%), followed by Ronald Reagan (0.09%), then George H. W. Bush (0.07%), and finally Bill Clinton (0.06%).

But, I think the best measure is to look at the total human cost of each individual conflict, which the Department of Defense also provides. 

Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission (April 25, 1980):
President: Jimmy Carter
Total Casualties: 8*

Lebanon Peacekeeping (1982-1984):
President: Ronald Reagan
Total Casualties: 265*

Urgent Fury, Grenada (1983)*:
President: Ronald Reagan
Total Casualties: 19*

Just Cause, Panama (1989)*:
President: George H. W. Bush
Total Casualties: 23*

Persian Gulf War (1990-1991)*:
President: George H. W. Bush
Total Casualties: 383*
Total Wounded: 467**

Restore Hope, Somalia (1992-1994):
President: Bill Clinton
Total Casualties: 43*

Uphold Democracy, Haiti (1994-1996):
President: Bill Clinton
Total Casualties: 4*

Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (2001-2008):
President: George W. Bush
Total Casualties: 606***
Total Seriously Wounded****: 8,601***

Iraqi Freedom, Iraq (2003-2008):
President: George W. Bush
Total Casualties: 4,169*****
Total Seriously Wounded****: 43,787*****

**** Total Seriously Wounded is total number of wounded requiring medical air transport

Afghanistan and Iraq have cost 4,775 lives and 52,388 serious injuries from 2001-2008, while all other major military engagements since 1980 (including the Persian Gulf War) had a combined total of 745 casualties. In comparison, the Vietnam Conflict resulted in 58,220 American military personnel dead and 153,303 seriously injured from 1964-1973 (** above). So, the Global War on Terror thus far has resulted 8.2% as many deaths and 33.7% as many serious injuries as Vietnam.

Regardless of how you feel about any or all of these military operations, it is important that we all recognize and value the very real costs paid by the men and women of our armed forces. So if you received or forwarded this erroneous email, I sincerely hope you will take the time to follow up with the correct information and make sure we properly honor the sacrifices of these brave soldiers.

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