Military Deaths Lower Now Than in 1980s

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT

( - American soldiers died in higher numbers during some of the peace-time years in the 1980s than in recent years when the military has fought conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a government report on casualty rates.

Further, the number of annual U.S. military deaths for the last three years is just slightly above the average annual death toll in the 1990s.

At the same time, the war in Iraq has the lowest death-per-wound ratio of any war going back to World War I, according to the report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which studied military deaths in a historical context.

While the number of combat deaths is higher in the military now than two decades ago, the suicide and homicide rate was substantially higher in the 1980s, as were accidents and fatal illnesses, all of which led to a higher death toll among military personnel than in recent years.

The study measures the death toll for every American war and also measures the total death toll per year from 1980 - when 2,392 military personnel died of various non-combat related causes - through 2006, when 1,858 soldiers died in both combat- and non-combat-related action combined.

However, 2006 also saw 753 American soldiers killed in hostile action, compared to no soldiers killed in hostile action in 1980.

One reason for the overall decline in the death toll is that the military population has declined over the last 25 years, experts said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the military had more than 2 million enlisted in 1980, a number that began to decline in 1992 when it reached 1.8 million, and came down to less than 1.4 million today.

But other reasons, such as medical advances and better safety to prevent fatal accidents have a lot to do with the decline in deaths over time, said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank.

"Medical care, whether on the battlefield or trauma, emergency care is so much better today than it was even 20 years ago," Goure told Cybercast News Service.

"With all the stories of Walter Reed, we forget that the battlefield stuff is just amazing. It's one reason we have so many wounded, people who have lost limbs. It's a good thing in a sad way. If we were doing as badly as in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Walter Reed would be half-empty but the cemeteries would be much fuller," he added.

Better medical care is also reflected in the number of deaths-per-wounded in Iraq compared to other conflicts since World War I, according to the report. The ratio showed that one soldier died per 7.6 soldiers who were wounded in Iraq since the war began in 2003. That ratio is better than one per 3.2 soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and the one death per 1.2 wounded in the first Persian Gulf War.

Still, the overall casualty number is higher in the Iraq war than both the Afghan war and the first Iraq war combined.

"We do a much better job in force protection, personal protection, armor, that we've worked very hard on and are getting better and better at," Goure said.

Some of the decreases in deaths could be expected, said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert for the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. He stressed that the comparisons in the CRS report are not reason to view nearly 1,000 troops killed per year as a low casualty rate.

"The country knows we need a big, strong, ready military to protect ourselves against threats we can not even specify," he said.

"One of the costs of doing that is a certain number of peace-time training accidents and other casualties. That's an inevitable fact of life when you have a modern, high-tech military. Losing 1,000 people a year in Iraq and Afghanistan by contrast is not an inevitable fact of life. It's a result of specific policy choices," O'Hanlon added.

The Pentagon reported last week that 2007 has been the deadliest year so far in Iraq despite the five-month decline in casualties since the surge of 30,000 additional American troops began. (See Previous Story)

"I would never want to compare those apples to those oranges," O'Hanlon said, referring to the CRS report.

"You've still got 1,000 people, or close to it, losing their lives in wars - wars that were specific policy choices. Whether you agree with them or not, let's not pretend those thousand people a year aren't dying because of the wars and if you ended the wars you would reduce the fatalities," he added.

Also in 1980, there were 1,156 accidental deaths in the military, compared to 465 in 2006; 174 military personnel were murdered in 1980, compared to 30 murdered in 2006; and there were 231 suicides in 1980 compared to 155 in 2006.

The training exercises are substantially safer as well, said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Starling, a fellow with the Hoover Institution.

"DOD as a whole has done a much better job in mitigating risk in the workplace and educating our servicemen and women about off-duty safety," Starling said in an interview.

"Training now is better than it was in the 80s. Another factor - computers and simulation. We use much more simulation in training. Technology means that we can use weapon simulators to practice safe weapons employment before we transition to live fire. We shoot less live ammunition in training nowadays," he added.

The number of military suicides, though much-reported in the media recently, is lower than in the 1980s or early 1990s. Since 1996, the number of military suicides per year has been below 200, according to the CRS.

"The Army recorded 17.3 suicides per 100,000 soldiers in 2006," the report said. "The rate is higher than the rate of suicides in the general population, which ranges from 10 to 11 per 100,000 people annually, but lower than the rate of suicide when adjusted to match the Army's age and gender characteristics."

This is primarily because it is an all-volunteer military, a change the military was adjusting to when the draft was dropped after the Vietnam War, said Goure. It's also because the military is better now at spotting at-risk soldiers, he said.

"Let's give a little credit to the military. They also are doing a better job of watching out for people who are that way," Goure said.

"This is an all-volunteer force. You have a different feeling about the people you're dealing with when you're all-volunteers. You try a little harder. You care a little more. That I think shows clearly in the suicide rates. Even in war-time, some have gone back three or four times now. We have very high reenlistment rates," Goure added.

Hannah Fischer, a researcher and a co-author of the CRS report, declined to speak on the record about the findings from the report, which was first released in June and updated in August.

Illnesses killed 419 American soldiers in 1980, compared to 205 in 2006.

The racial makeup of military deaths is also notable, as 75 percent of deaths in the Iraq war and 80 percent of deaths from Afghanistan are among Caucasians. Blacks and Hispanics each account for about 10 percent of deaths in Iraq and less than that in Afghanistan.

Those numbers are consistent with a 2003 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation that showed blacks made up 16.25 percent of the military population, while making up just 11 percent of the U.S. population. Whites make up 77 percent of the U.S. population and 78 percent of the military population, the study said.

That was not a surprise, according to Goure, considering that military recruiters have long targeted minorities, promising them career training in technology, engineering and other fields. The number of minorities trained for combat is substantially lower than the entire military population, he said.

"Minorities have served brilliantly and wonderfully but have tended to look for how to parlay this opportunity for later life, pilot training, mechanic training and engineers," Goure said. "The circumstances in Iraq, if you're an intelligence officer, if you're a communications officer, you're going to be less vulnerable than if you're out on the street."

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