Rod Hafemeister, Military Reporter

Observations on current military issues.

Disinformation about military deaths under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

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Have you seen the list of “Annual fatalities of military members…?”

The one that claims to show more service members died on Bill Clinton’s watch than have died during the George W. Bush presidency? And that blames the “liberal media” for not reporting it?

Well, it’s not true. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the original author of the email appears to have deliberately lied, since the numbers used do not agree with the ones in the official government document claimed as the source.

Further, the email is deliberately deceptive: For Bush, some of the numbers appear to be only the number of military deaths in Iraq — and incorrect numbers, at that. But for Clinton, the numbers are for all military deaths, including those from accidents, illnesses, homicides and suicides.

Here’s a version I received in March, with notes.

It may be the worst piece of political disinformation I’ve seen in a long time, easily and completely discredited by simply checking the link to the source.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t prevented people from posting some variation of it on hundreds of blogs or from forwarding it to tens of thousands of people on email lists as if it was the absolute truth.

Here’s the truth: According to the Pentagon’s official figures, 7,500 active duty service members died between 1993 and 2000, the eight years of the Bill Clinton administration. During the first six years of the George W. Bush administration, 2001 through 2006, 8,989 active duty service members died — 1,489 more than under Clinton, even though the Bush total covers two fewer years.

More significantly, when you compare the death rates under the two presidents, the average death rate under Clinton was 5.75 deaths per 10,000 active duty service members and 9.05 per 10,000 under Bush.

I can already hear readers asking, “Huh? What’s this death rates stuff? Death rates aren’t in any of the emails.”

Of course not — comparing death rates exposes the email as false propaganda.

Death rate is more significant than the raw number of deaths, because it compares the number of deaths to the number of people on active duty. For example, if two populations have the same number of deaths, but one population starts with twice as many people as the other, then its death rate is half that of the smaller population.

For death statistics, the Pentagon uses a figure for “Total Military FTE (full-time equivalent)” that includes the number of service members on active duty, the number of full-time Guard and Reserve members and a calculation of active duty days for Selected Guard and Reserve members who are only on active duty part time. Here is a chart of the actual death rates for the calendar years from 1980 through 2006:

(I chose “deaths per 10,000” because it is a commonly accepted ratio and resulted in one or two-digit whole numbers with two decimal places, making it easier to read on a chart. If you prefer percentages, simply move the decimal point two spaces to the left.)

As you can see, the death rates of 11.66 and 11.39, for 2005 and 2006, respectively, are the highest for the period. The 2004 death rate, 10.94, is only slightly less than the earlier peak of 11.08 in 1980. The general trend from 1980 until 2001 had been downward, with noticeable upticks for events like the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the invasion of Grenada, both in 1983, and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

As the military got smaller during the 1990s, the rate at which service members died dropped even faster, reaching a low of 4.95 per 10,000 in 2000.

The primary reason for the decline in death rates was a dramatic drop in the rate of accidental deaths, from 7.20 in 1980 to as low as 2.60 in 2000. In peacetime, accidental deaths typically make up more than 50 percent of all military deaths and through most of the 1980s they were 60 to 65 percent of all deaths.

Here is a chart of the accidental death rates:

Most military observers credit two factors for the reduction in the accidental death rates: The 1984 federal law that compelled states to raise their drinking ages from 18 back to 21 and the military drawdown of the 1990s.

During the drawdown, commanders looked for reasons to discharge service members — and underage drinking or a driving under the influence bust was a career killer.

So where did this propaganda piece originate? It’s impossible to be certain, but the earliest version I can find, which at least uses correct numbers for the Clinton years, is on a blog post from June 4, 2007.

(UPDATE 11 April 2008: Based on a tip and additional search, it now appears the earliest variation was a Feb. 20, 2007 piece by Alicia Colon in the New York Sun.)

Recently, the bogus statistics have risen to the attention of a few in the media, who have started to debunk them, including Bob Richter, public editor of the San Antonio Express-News, with two columns here and here, and Chuck Vinch of the Army Times group of military newspapers.

But your Google search will have to get past a lot of versions of the disinformation before you find them.

And that’s a shame. The military men and women who have died, in war and in peace, deserve better than to have their deaths dishonored for a piece of political propaganda.


(The two tables below show the death numbers, with total death rates, and the death rates by cause of death. Click to expand.)

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Written by Rod Hafemeister

8 April 2008 at 0629 UTC

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