Deadly Calculus

It always difficult to examine death statistics, particularly statistics associated with the Iraq War. Every death represents the loss of someone’s spouse, sibling, or child. Treating these lives as numbers does not quite seem appropriate. However, we can often learn things by examining phenomena mathematically that are difficult to observe otherwise, and we should not dispense with any tool at our disposal. Indeed, epidemiology is the medical study of diseases in populations. Its use can often help discover was of dealing with disease. We only hope that the ideas presented here serve the same purpose.

The web site Iraqi Coalition Casualty Count provides the useful public service of compiling a day-by-day tally of Iraq Coalition casualties as well as the death of Iraqi security personnel and Iraqi civilians. It is perhaps most instructive to examine the monthly statistics. Month statistics are more reliable and they roughly mirror the evolution of the Iraqi conflict.

In the first month of the war, Coalition casualties were at their highest, averaging 7.67 deaths per day over the month. Then the casualty rates eased over the first summer of 2003, mostly averaging less than 2 deaths per day. During February 2004, the Coalition casualty rate actually dropped below 1 per day. Then the insurgency began in earnest, partially exacerbated by the bombing of an important Shite Shrine that inflamed sectarian tensions.

Sometimes, the casualty rate dropped below 2 per day, but for far too many months the death rate was well over 2 per day, sometimes even reaching over 4 per day. It is this relatively constant death rate with little sign of change, that has been the source of American frustration with the military strategy in Iraq.

Finally this year, the Americans under General David Patraeus, over the objections of many in Congress initiated a bold new initiative: the surge. With 30,000 additional troops, the surge represents an attempt to aggressively change the dynamics on the ground. By most accounts, at least from a military perspective, the surge seems to be working. Violence is down. The number of civilian deaths has dropped from over 3,000 a month early in the year to less than 1,000 per month in recent months.

Is this impression consistent with the accurately counted Coalition casualties? In May of this year, when the surge was beginning in earnest, the casualty rate was a high 4.23 deaths per day. One might have expected with more soldiers in the field taking a more aggressive posture that the number of casualties would, at least at the beginning of the surge, actually increase. However, since May there has been a steady drop in coalition casualties. As of this writing, for the current month, the casualty rate is 1.45 per day.

This drop is most impressive because it does not appear to be just a random good month. The casualty rate has been dropping over an extended period of time. Moreover, in only 14% of the months of the war has the casualty rate been this low. Many of those months were in the early period of the war.

If the casualty rate can show the same steady decline over the next few months, even with some set backs, the surge strategy will be unequivocally successful. If the casualty rates drop below the 1 per day rate for an extended period of time, Americans will become optimistic about the prospects for victory. There will probably never be a clear moment of victory in Iraq, but if the violence continues to abate, the Iraqis and Americans will slowly slip into victory.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.