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Department Of Apples And Oranges

Andrew links to a shocking article in The Times of London that suggests an epidemic of suicides among veterans:

More American military veterans have been committing suicide than US soldiers have been dying in Iraq, it was claimed yesterday.

At least 6,256 US veterans took their lives in 2005, at an average of 17 a day, according to figures broadcast last night. Former servicemen are more than twice as likely than the rest of the population to commit suicide.

Such statistics compare to the total of 3,863 American military deaths in Iraq since the invasion in 2003 - an average of 2.4 a day, according to the website

The suicide rate among Americans as a whole was 8.9 per 100,000, but the level among veterans was at least 18.7. That figure rose to a minimum of 22.9 among veterans aged 20 to 24 – almost four times the nonveteran average for people of the same age.

The implicit suggestion is that the toll of the Iraq war is higher than we ever dared imagine, that even after they return to the States, traumatized vets are as much, or even more, at risk for their lives as they were on the battlefield. The problem with this comparison is that there are vastly more U.S. veterans than soldiers who are serving, or have ever served, in Iraq. According to the 2006 census, there are 23.7 million veterans in the United States, of whom 9.2 million are over 65 and 8 million served in the Vietnam era; by contrast, just 1.9 million veterans are under 35. The Times article essentially admits as much in its 7th graph: "There are 25 million veterans in the United States, 1.6 million of whom [i.e., between 6 and 7 percent] served in Afghanistan and Iraq." Moreover, the suicide rates cited by the Times appear to come from data going back as far as 1995, indicating that most of the deaths tallied predate the Iraq war.

None of this is to suggest that post-traumatic stress and other mental and emotional problems among veterans are not pressing issues. And they're almost certain to get far, far worse when the soldiers who have been serving in Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan) return home. But inflammatory comparisons between the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and the number of veterans (out of a vastly larger population) who commit suicide obscure far more than they clarify.

--Christopher Orr