First, the NY Times announced that American troops were crazed killers. Next, it announced that they were crazed homeless people. The latest salvo the media has launched at the troops to counteract the Surge’s success is that they’re so crazy they are killing themselves in droves:
As many as 121 Army soldiers committed suicide in 2007, a jump of some 20 percent over the year before, officials said Thursday.
The rise comes despite numerous efforts to improve the mental health of a force stressed by a longer-than-expected war in Iraq and the most deadly year yet in the now six-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.
Internal briefing papers prepared by the Army’s psychiatry consultant early this month show there were 89 confirmed suicides last year and 32 deaths that are suspected suicides and still under investigation.
More than a quarter of those — about 34 — happened during deployments in Iraq, an increase from 27 in Iraq the previous year, according to the preliminary figures.
The report also shows an increase in the number of attempted suicides and self-injuries — some 2,100 in 2007 compared to less than 1,500 the previous year and less than 500 in 2002.
The total of 121 suicides last year, if all are confirmed, would be more than double the 52 reported in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the Bush administration to launch its counter-terror war. The toll was 87 by 2005 and 102 in 2006.
I’m not quarreling with the numbers for last year, which equal 121 individual tragedies. Nor do I challenge the fact that the number of suicides has been rising. However, I do have a problem with the absence of context. The story makes it appear as if there’s an ever escalating suicide epidemic in the military that sets it apart from the general American population. That is, the article forgot to compare these numbers to society at large. Significantly, it also doesn’t distinguish between active duty, guard and reserve (502,790, 346,288 and 189,975, all of which add up to 1,039,053). As always context makes things interesting.
Here are some statistics regarding suicide in America as of 2004:
- There were 11.05 suicides per every 100,000 people.
- Men commit 78.8% of all suicides.
- 12.9% of all deaths in the 15-24 year old demographic come from suicide. Another source puts this demographic at about 12.5 suicides per every 100,000 people. (People over 65 have the highest rate, at 14.3 people out of every 100,000). Adolescents between 15 and 19 come in third highest, at 8.2 suicides per every 100,000.
- Non-Hispanic Whites and Native Americans are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as other minorities. (Approx. 12 out of every 100,000 versus approx. 5-6 out of every 100,000)
Now lets look at Army demographics for the year 2006 (the last I could find):
- Total number of troops, active, guard and reserve: 1,039,053
- Total number of active and guard troops (not counting reserve): 849,078
- Total active duty was 502,790
- Men make up 86% of active duty soldiers (430,000).
- Whites made up 61.6 percent of active duty soldiers, or almost 310,000 troops.
I’m not able to find the average age for the Army (I don’t know why), but I’m willing to bet it hovers between 19-24, with the weight at about 20.
Okay, bear with me here, and correct me when I go wildly wrong, but I think one can make a few predictions about what the suicide rate probably would be in the military if it hewed to general American statistics. First of all, if there are an average of 11.05 suicides for every 100,000 people, out of the total army strength of 1,039,053, one would expect a little more than 110 suicides, which is remarkably close to the 121 committed last year. And given that the Army is disproportionately male and that the rate of suicides is disproportionately high amongst men, one would have to expect that the average of 11.05 suicides would have to skew upwards to account for both of these disproportionalities. You then have to add in the fact that the average male soldiers age also places him in one of the high risk suicide categories (youths 15-24). After doing all that, you’d have to slide the rate down a little to reflect the fact that some of these men are minorities, who have lower suicides rates, but that kind of math is utterly beyond me. Any of you who can do math should feel free to chime in here and tell me by how much the suicide rate increases when you have a mostly white, young, male demographic in the military, and mostly white, young, male suicides in the general population. Complicated math or not, my rule of thumb tells me that, compared to the general population, the rate of Army suicides is not out of the ordinary.
Even if one rachets the numbers down from all troops and looks only at active duty and guard troops, the result isn’t that different. The total number of active and guard troops, as I noted above, is 849,078. That means that you could expect an average of 94 suicides per year. And then again, you’d have to do the higher math of factoring in all those young, white men and then factoring down slightly for minorities (who are 38.4$ of active duty troops and 25.5% of guard troops).
Things do get more tragic if one really rachets the numbers down to focus only on active duty suicides, because that would mean a base suicide rate that’s twice the national average. Even adjusting that for the young, white male military population probably wouldn’t offset the differential. I can’t find the report on which this news story is based, though, so I really don’t know which Army population is at issue.
In any event, as you think about all of this, consider that the report says that there are only 89 confirmed suicides, with 32 still being investigated. It’s certain that some of those being investigated will prove also to be suicides, but it’s anything but certain that all will.
Bottom line: It’s all very complicated for a math-phobe like me but, unless one is sure that the numbers in the article apply only to active duty troops, I’m fairly confident that the numbers, while showing 121 personal tragedies, do not prove that our American troops are killing themselves like flies. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) In other words, while the news report, to the extent it gives numbers directly from military sources, is informative, to the extent the report makes it appear that troops are dying in droves as compared to other Americans, it’s misleading.
UPDATE: Gateway Pundit has an more interesting take on the story than I did, which is the fact that more troops committed suicide during the Clinton years than are now committing suicide. Perhaps doing ones job, even a dangerous job, is less demoralizing and depressing than being marginalized and denigrated.