Dissent and discussion: Casualties in Iraq

A story by Pentagon Correspondent Nancy A. Youssef that we published on Sunday sparked a huge outcry in the blogosphere this week. Critics charged that the piece uncritically accepted the Bush administration's line that the surge of additional American troops to Iraq is working and that its statistical underpinning was flawed. McClatchy usually is associated with questioning administration claims, from the reasons for the war to Pentagon assertions about civilian casualties. We've earned a reputation for not accepting something just because someone says it's true, so being accused of uncritical reporting stings. But one of our mottos here is "Truth to Power," and that cuts both ways, so here's a more in-depth look at the story and some of the criticism of it.

The genesis of the story was pretty straight forward. In June, the Pentagon announced that all of the troops involved in the so-called surge finally were in place and that American offensive operations would begin in earnest. Pentagon officials and the White House had predicted that U.S. casualties would rise, especially since the U.S. forces had launched major offensives in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, and Babil province, to the south. One of the most recent restatements of that premise came in the White House's July 12 assessment of progress in Iraq on Pages 3 and 4.

So what happened? Not what had been predicted. U.S. deaths caused by enemy action peaked at 120 (filter by May 2007. Make sure you've clicked on U.S. in the box labeled coalition country) in May, before the surge reached full strength or Operation Phantom Thunder was launched.

Combat casualties then fell consistently for the next three months, reaching a low of 56 in August, (filter by August 2007). That's the lowest number of combat casualties all year. You have to go back to July 2006 to find combat casualties at that level.

That discovery surprised many analysts, as Nancy wrote. Maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise. Reporters in Iraq had noted a startling lack of U.S. deaths or frustration on the part of soldiers that they weren't finding the gangs of insurgents they'd expected. One British analyst told Nancy that Iraq's armed groups may simply have avoided combat with the Americans. A few days later, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (Pages 42-43) lent credence to that idea.

Of course, some supporters of the surge credited the surge, and Nancy reported that, as well. After all, no one claimed to know precisely why the decline had taken place.

Criticism came from surge supporters, who said McClatchy was bending over backwards to belittle Bush's policy or had joined the "surrender enthusiasts". An example of an email is attached to this story. But the most vitriolic criticism came from liberal Web sites who accused us of doctoring the statistics or of being part of the "as-usual servile and unquestioning mainstream press."

So where did the statistics come from? Almost since the beginning of the war, McClatchy and, before that, Knight Ridder, which McClatchy acquired last year, have relied on the Iraq Casualty Count which is also known as icasualties, to keep track of U.S. deaths in Iraq. An independent organization, it uses official information to categorize casualties in a variety of ways, and its search engines allow a user to track deaths in a number of ways, from causes to hometown. Its information is often days ahead of the Pentagon's.

We wanted to pick the data that would most clearly reflect the pace of combat operations, and so we chose to examine only those deaths that were caused by enemy action, which icasualties refers to as hostile. Here's a chart showing those deaths. What deaths are left out in such a consideration?

Those caused by accidents, illness and helicopter crashes unrelated to enemy activity. In August, that was a large number, including 19 soldiers who died in helicopter crashes not related to combat. Fourteen died in one crash alone. Such deaths have always been tracked separately by icasualties. You can click on any month since the invasion in March 2003 and see the breakdown. If you want more info on causes of death, change the "View Totals By" box to "Cause of Death Detail." (Again, be sure to select "U.S." in the coalition country box.)

When you do that, you see that non-hostile deaths in the first year of the war were a far greater percentage of deaths than they are now. In fact, in May and August 2003, there were more non-hostile deaths than hostile ones. In the early years of the war, you're also more likely to find soldiers killed in falls, accidents and drownings than you are now.

Of course, none of the soldiers would have died in Iraq if U.S. troops weren't there, and that's one reason to count all casualties when talking about the American cost of the war. But hostile deaths are more reflective of actual contact with the enemy and a better number to gauge the pace of combat operations.

Some critics argue that there's an annual drop-off in casualties in the summer, and that we erred by not accounting for that. Using that approach, any decline in casualties from May's peak was simply to be expected and has nothing to do with the surge or combat operations.

But that doesn't explain why this August, in particular, when the U.S. supposedly was increasing combat operations, deaths dropped. Here are the summer statistics from icasualties:

Month Hostile Non-Hostile Total
Aug 2007 56 28 84
July 2007 67 12 79
June 2007 93 8 101
May 2007 120 6 126

As you can see, deaths always drop between May and June, and, since 2004, they've always risen between July and August, except this year, when they dropped — even though there were an additional 30,000 or so American troops in Iraq. So there's no reason to think that the drop in hostile deaths that took place between July and August this year was a normal seasonal variation. In fact, it was aberrant. Without the Aug. 22 helicopter crash, which no one so far has attributed to hostile action, total deaths would have been lower in August — breaking a long pattern.

So who's correct, surge supporters who say the August numbers show that sending in more troops is working? Or surge opponents, who say the statistics mean nothing more than that Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite militiamen simply slipped away to fight another day?

There's no definitive answer yet. But the outpouring of commentary shows that it was a good question to ask.

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