Casualty Counts Count

A closer look at fatality trends in Iraq after 15 months

Another Memorial Day has come and gone. But this year’s was particularly unique, not only because there are soldiers fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but because huge crowds – including teary-eyed octogenarian veterans – descended upon the National Mall in Washington for the dedication of the new World War II Memorial.

Falling on the last day of May, this Memorial Day also marked the end of the month in which the official casualty count for American service personnel in Iraq eclipsed 5,000, including as it does now more than 800 dead and 4,200 wounded. Meanwhile, more dogged reporters now estimate that the injuries and illnesses not included in official statistics, such as those requiring service personnel to be evacuated for various physical and mental traumas, probably put the truer casualty count closer to 10,000 Americans.

None of these totals include American civilians or contractors maimed or killed, nor the casualties suffered by coalition allies, nor certainly the far greater number of killed, wounded, or displaced Iraqis – many of whom are militants, of course, but some of whom are, or were, innocents. Finally, there are the scattering of hostages, and the missing.

Sticking just to the officially-reported woundings and deaths, it is oft-noted that the vast majority of the casualties have happened after President Bush declared 13 months ago that our mission had been accomplished. The politics of the May 1, 2003 demarcation point are salient, especially given the bravado the President exhibited during his staged carrier landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, and the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner his team rose as theatrical backdrop.

But the hard reality is that separating between the casualties borne during the “combat” and “post-combat” phases is meaningless. I often wonder: Do parents, siblings or spouses really take away a special satisfaction or condolence from knowing that their beloved died on April 30, 2003, instead of some date thereafter?

Looking ahead, one must also wonder if the bereaved will extract any special distinction if their family member or friend is killed before or after the next demarcation point – the “official” handover to the Iraqis of their sovereignty now just four weeks away. For surely there will be added casualties suffered by the American and coalition forces who will remain in Iraq after the purported transfer of power to stabilize the country.

Unfortunately, the official casualty rates are now sufficiently high to detect patterns, at least in the fatalities. Thanks to’s diligent efforts to not merely assemble but organize this information, we are able to make some preliminary trend assessments and general observations.

For starters, although last month was not as bloody as April 2004 (which was the worst month of the war, in which 4.5 Americans died, on average, each day), May 2004 was not particularly encouraging. Including the “combat phase” months of March and April 2003, the death rate last month (2.5/day) still ranks as the fourth-worst overall, trailing only the 12-day partial month of March 2003 when the invasion began (5.4), and the casualty-spiked month of November 2003 (2.7).

As our biggest coalition allies, the British have a reported troop count of 7,500 service personnel in Iraq, compared to our estimated 135,000. That ratio of about one British soldier for every 18 Americans is strikingly close to what the 59 British deaths comprise relative to the 814 American deaths through Memorial Day 2004. At first glance, the U.K-U.S. “special relationship,” though never one of equal forces, would at least appear to be one of proportional sacrifice.

Yet, upon closer inspection, we see that, of all Brits killed in action to date, almost half (27) died in just the first 12 days of the war, in March 2003. More remarkably, not a single British military member has been killed in the past three months, when 265 Americans died, and in the past nine months the Brits have lost just nine soldiers, due to the fact that most have been stationed in the southern part of Iraq, where the insurgency is relatively quiet.

Still, the striking divergence of burden between America and its allies in recent months deserves mention. Although non-American coalition forces suffered a record 28 deaths last November (only one of which was British), in the six months beginning December 1 American troops have suffered 372 of the 397 total coalitional fatalities – almost 94 percent. By comparison, in the first 256 days of the war through November 30, 2003, American deaths constituted but 84 percent of coalition fatalities.

If it wasn’t fully our war a year ago, with each passing month it is becoming so.

What’s more, thus far the share of the 814 American casualties who were killed by hostile fire seems to be increasing. Again using December 1 as the cut point, only 300 of the 442 Americans, or 67.9 percent, killed prior to that date were victims of hostile fire, whereas the 299 service personnel of the 372 total who died in the past six months yield hostile-action death rate of 80.4 percent. Though non-hostile deaths from friendly fire, accidents and suicides are no less tragic, not only is Iraq becoming more relatively more dangerous for America, but the dangers are more external.

Looking at the fatalities through domestic eyes, the number of Americans killed to date is sizable enough to begin to examine any patterns in the burdens borne by each of the American states. In a New Yorker article about the France family, which owns NASCAR, William France, Jr., said of NASCAR fans: “People ask me who are the NASCAR fans and, without blinking an eye, I say, ‘They’re the people that win wars for America.’”

Now, NASCAR is popular in a lot of states. And, given the mobility of American life generally and military life in particular, the hometowns of servicemen and servicewomen may not reflect their native states. But it is instructive to compare the share of total fatalities borne by each American state (plus the District of Columbia) with the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 2003 population estimates for these 51 jurisdictions.

For each of the 51 jurisdictions, I computed the ratio between that state’s share of fatalities and its population share. States with ratios higher than 1 have borne a disproportionately greater share of fatalities, and vice versa for those with ratios less than 1. But before discussing the results, I offer three important qualifiers.

  • First, aside from the fact that officially-listed hometowns for military members can be misleading, total statewide Census-estimated populations surely fail to reflect each state’s share of active of reserve military personnel in the first place, shares which are undoubtedly higher per-capita in some states (especially those with major military bases) than others.
  • Second, states with lower average household incomes are, all else equal, likely to be over-represented in the military.
  • Third, and finally, whatever distortions state demographics or the location of military bases may introduce, for the least-populated states the law of small numbers dictates caution in drawing conclusions about fatality ratios. Indeed, the three states with the highest ratios – Vermont (4.74), North Dakota (3.48), and Wyoming (2.93) – are, not coincidentally, very small states where the additional death of one or two soldiers can increase their ratio dramatically.

Though I provide ratios here for all states, the 20 most-populous states appear in bold because they are at least sufficiently large enough to permit some preliminary assessments.

Rank State Fatalities Ratio Rank State Fatalities Ratio
1 Vermont 8 4.74 27 Massachusetts 17 0.97
2 North Dakota 6 3.48 28 Missouri 15 0.97
3 Wyoming 4 2.93 29 Virginia 19 0.94
4 Delaware 6 2.69 30 Illinois 32 0.93
5 South Dakota 5 2.40 31 Georgia 21 0.89
6 Nebraska 11 2.32 32 Michigan 24 0.87
7 Rhode Island 5 1.71 33 New Hampshire 3 0.86
8 Maine 6 1.69 34 Connecticut 8 0.84
9 Mississippi 13 1.66 35 North Carolina 19 0.83
10 Arkansas 12 1.62 36 West Virginia 4 0.81
11 Iowa 12 1.50 37 Montana 2 0.80
12 Alabama 18 1.47 38 Washington 13 0.78
13 Oklahoma 14 1.46 39 Florida 35 0.76
14 Kansas 10 1.35 40 Ohio 23 0.74
15 Oregon 13 1.34 41 Louisiana 9 0.73
16 South Carolina 15 1.33 42 Colorado 9 0.73
17 Pennsylvania 44 1.31 43 New York 35 0.67
18 DC 2 1.30 44 Minnesota 9 0.65
19 Tennessee 20 1.26 45 New Jersey 15 0.64
20 Texas 74 1.23 46 Utah 4 0.62
21 Wisconsin 17 1.14 47 Maryland 9 0.60
22 Idaho 18 1.07 48 New Mexico 3 0.59
23 Indiana 18 1.07 49 Alaska 1 0.57
24 Arizona 16 1.05 50 Nevada 2 0.33
25 California 96 0.99 51 Hawaii 1 0.29
26 Kentucky 11 0.98

NASCAR fans are stereotyped as being from southern states or poor areas from non-southern states, but that is an unfair caricature, for there are fans throughout the country. That makes France’s claim difficult to test – though I suspect the fact that Tennessee’s fatality is twice Maryland’s is instructive in many ways France would find confirming.

What can be said about these numbers is that some of the higher-income states (New York, New Jersey and Maryland) are suffering fewer losses proportional to poorer states, like the President’s beloved Texas. Of course, just because a state has an overall higher per-capita income doesn’t mean that the poorer residents within that state are not still the ones who disproportionately serve, fight, and die. However, with all the reservists being called to duty, our assumptions about the demography of war may be turned on their heads when the final casualty statistics for this war are investigated, in detail, years from now.

In the context of U.S. history, the casualties in Iraq war pale by comparison to previous wars, a point made nicely in a recent analysis by The Washington Post.

But no matter. For now, and with apologies for the insufficiencies of the data and methods applied, this is a first cut at who is dying in Iraq.

Although no full accounting will bring back any of those who lost their lives in Iraq, in addition to honoring those during Memorial Day weeks with tributes, salutes and video montages, we do so also by taking a cold, clear look at the statistical casualties of war.

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