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Friday, 13 November 2009


"42,000 active U.S. military personnel have been killed—roughly the same number of Americans who die in traffic accidents in a single year."

So don't worry. I am not american but that just annoys the hell out of me.

You put in lots of comment to cover you but you still demean your soldiers death by comparing their deaths to traffic statistics.(YOU put in the quotation and therefore you must have thought it had value. You didn't say it yourself but you repeated it.)

To try to rationalise and 'balance' the perception of the gravity of their deaths by comparing their number to deaths by speeding, drunks, drugs etc. in car accidents is just awful.

There is NO on balance statement anyone can make which takes the trauma out of 42000 deaths.

Will you censor this?

[Ed. Note: I did censor it, by removing from the quoted passage the paragraph that so offended Louis. It compared combat fatalities to the number of traffic fatalities. And was more or less beside the point. --MJ]

This is a loaded subject, so it's natural for people to have strong reactions. The salient point here is that the conduct of our two active wars has not raised the death rate for military personnel. That's an extraordinary fact any way you look at it. I would never have guessed it.

Of course I do not mean to belittle or demean anyone's untimely death, from whatever cause.



Thank you for the link to Craig F. Walker's photo essay. I am only partway through it, but it's bringing back many intense memories. Wow.

I'm not going to comment on the Freakonomics book, except to say that Levitt and Dubner often seem to be contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian. Like those smartass kids who sat in the back of the class in high school and made snarky comments about everthing. (Oh, wait, that was me....) In my misspent youth I actually managed to get a degree in economics, so I feel somewhat qualified to point out that L & D's work is controversial in the field.

Yes, their view of global warming has certainly ruffled some environmentalists' feathers. Fascinating book, though.


Mike: I have to agree that introducing the Freakomomics data into a post so soon after the Fort Hood tragedy and so close to Veterans Day is a little tone deaf.



I have a nephew in Iraq, and one who just retired from active duty, 3 tours in Iraq, and who just lost a friend, team member, and part of his wedding, in Afghanistan.

Interesting statistics, reality, nothing to be offended by.

That's all.

Whoaa…………That’s a stopper. I am sure you are sincere in not implying any disrespect to those in military service. I hope that Mr. Levitt and Dubner did not either.
It shows me the danger, and mess, statisticians can get us into. The idea is certainly not hopeful or comforting to any gold star mother. I am absolutely sure that the relatively low number of deaths among our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is because of the fantastic battlefield medical care the military has. And, there is a lot of hurt there.

BTW, great blog, says a new reader.

Hopeful? Encouraging? More like missing the forest because of the trees. This is OT but hey, you brought it up :-)

First of all, the decrease in death rates of American soldiers in the current wars is more than offset by the increase in disabling physical and mental injuries soldiers are experiencing. Yes, loss of life is the ultimate sacrifice, but loss of limb is just as damaging to family and society.

Secondly, war is about a lot more than the health of those in service. America has a funny way of reducing armed conflict to one dimension - support for the troops (and even then, in sentiment only as recent events with the V.A. and Arlington demonstrate). Witness Veteran's Day. The rest of the world observes Remembrance Day or Armistice Day when the sacrifices of soldiers AND civilians in wartime are honoured.

Freakonomics is one thing, but the chaos and destruction and pain of war is something else entirely. Economics is just numbers and it fails to capture reality as actually experienced by people -- jobless recovery anyone?

Perhaps it is hopeful that those in the armed forces are safer than they were in the past, even during peacetime. But we must be ever mindful of the larger picture. War is tragic and abhorrent and the least productive of human enterprises. And quoting Levitt's statistic without regard for the hundreds of thousands, and by some estimates, millions of civilian casualties caused by our warring is callous and glib.

In the context of the current wars there is so much more that needs to be hoped for than just the safety of our soldiers.

I love your writing on most subjects, Mike, and especially on all things photographic, and I consider you a thoughtful person and a humanist, but when you blog about political subjects such as this one, prepare for the minefield! (Yes, another dig, because of America's refusal to sign the international land mine treaty ;-)

It is, of course, a very good thing that the rate of death among those on active service is not higher than it is. I do wonder and worry, though, about those casualties who do not die. My understanding (which may not be correct, of course) is that in these days of body armor and IEDs there are a great many injuries which are now survivable (due to better emergency battlefield care as well as body armor etc.) but have serious, permanent and debilitating consequences. I hope that injured soldiers and their families will be well cared for, but history and politics lead me to have grave doubts.

...Mike F

Simply put, all those war dead volunteered to be there. They joined the forces in the knowledge that their country might send them somewhere dangerous, where they would be expected to put their lives on the line - they also knew that some of them might not come home. And their families knew the same thing. They elected to take their country's coin... the old expression about having your cake and eating it too comes to mind.

I am not disparaging their service or their deaths, but Mike's reporting of the comparison re road deaths IS valid - those who die while driving are willingly submitting themselves to the laws of chance by their decision to drive, just as military personel do by electing to serve. It may be a bullet, it may be a drunk driver - you pays your money and you takes your chances. NO human endeavour is without risk, that's just the way it is. Yes, I feel for the families of any who died while in the forces, of whatever nation, just as I do for those who are subjected to motor vehicle accidents. But dressing military deaths up as 'sacrifice' makes a mockery of those who die while at work; isn't working and supplying your nation with its daily bread (and coal and roads and fish etc) just as 'noble' a sacrifice if you should be so unfortunate as to die at work?

As to whether any nation's servicemen should actually be in theatre, that's another thing altogether.

that wartime/peacetime statistic may be surprising, but I think that's because it's not a good comparison. The author attributes some of the improvement to better medical care, but I'm sure some could also be attributed to better equipment and perhaps safety measures. Looking at the same stats for the 1990s (post Desert Storm) would perhaps provide a more meaningful data point.

According to this document - http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32492.pdf - there were an average of 900 fatalities for the five peacetime years ending in 1999 with an active duty military of roughly the same size as what we now have (1.4 million). That rate of fatalities is 45% lower than the current wartime average. And so, statistically at least, I would dispute the claim that "It seems that practicing to fight a war can be just about as dangerous as really fighting one."

Most dangerous jobs in America (annual fatalities per 100,000 workers):

1. Fishermen (128.9)
2. Soldiers (117.4)
3. Loggers (115.7)
4. Pilots (72.4)
5. Iron and steel workers (46.4)
6. Ranchers and farmers (39.5)
7. Garbagemen (36.8)
8. Roofers (34.4)
9. Electrical linemen (29.8)
10. Truck drivers (22.8)


I would be very skeptical of the statistics presented, unless they were verified by an independent source. Levitt and Dubner tend to present a world as seen through the very narrow lens of economic statistics. Statistics can be used, or misused, to support virtually any position by judiciously ignoring context and contributing factors while emphasizing only the numbers that fit the a priori assumptions. Science history is filled with such cases, and I have witnessed incidents myself when I worked as a consulting data analyst. I would advise taking a grain of salt when reading statistical conclusions, but the total amount of salt intake would likely contribute to a case of extreme hypertension.

As someone who has been through a little military training, I can say that safety protocols and and battlefield procedures can mean quite a bit as well. Good training can save lives as well as good equipment.

I'd agree (in particular with Jeff) that deaths in numbers is just one part of the story. Things like injuries, disabilities, psychological strain (read the stories of PTSD), and even the drain on the economy all affect people in a country involved in a war. Lower or similar death rates is only part of the story.

Those statistics are indeed surprising.

During peacetime, while practicing, they shoot at eachother, during war they shoot at others. Would it be fair then, to take those others into account when counting?

After all, we are all people.

Garbageman seventh-most-dangerous job in America? Wow.

Actually the comparison with traffic fatalities is very apt. One of Australia's leading trauma doctors has been commenting on the very same thing here. He's done several terms in Iraq and Afghanistan so I think he's qualified to speak on the subject. He cites several reasons for the drop in fatalities in warfare,the use of improved body armour (as mentioned by other posters), but the main one is that your chances of surviving major trauma improve significantly with how soon you are treated. In fact its called the "golden hour". The military now have make sure that where ever possible there is quick intervention from a highly trained combat medic and CASEVAC to a hospital facility. So in this way they have done all that is in their power to reduce fatalities. With RTAs changes have been slow. Reluctant uptake of safer features in cars (expense to the consumer being cited as the main reason), a difficulty in changing driver habits, and a variables in the provision of medical facilities. So it is an appalling statistic that drivers are killing themselves at a rate that is equal to or greater than the military fatalities suffered in a war-zone.

I don´t get the math. If 2100 out of 2.1 million soldiers were killed in 2001 that´s a death rate of 0.100%. 1643 out of 1.4 million yields a death rate of 0.117%. Therefore the death rate in 2008 is far higher by 17% than in 2001. That´s quite a bit. No evidence is provided for the claim "But even the rate of death in 2008 was lower than in certain peacetime years".

But that´s not my major criticism. By only counting the fatalities we forget about the huge amount of people returning traumatized from this war. These people will suffer for the rest of their lives from their experiences.

In the spirit in which Mike intended, I did find it "comforting" that fewer military workers are losing their lives now than during peacetime in the Reagan years. Comfort, not solace.

Well, Mike, I am not impressed with your statistics on dangerous jobs. It is obviously the statistics (as written) of workers in America. The statistics of combat soldiers in Afghanistan is another story. I just lost 2 of my comrades from my old company (Danish Royal Guards). That is 2 out of 150 men in just 2 months. Hope not to lose anymore from that company. I am sure the American combat statistics in Afghanistan is comparable.

With all respect due to individualities and values, I can't understand why anybody would be offended by someone else comparing people who die on accidents to people who die while on duty.

I hate to think that someone in the near future will say "Hey, let's go to war, after all practicing to fight a war can be just about as dangerous as really fighting one" almost as much as people who evaluate a war considering only their own casualties. Maybe it's bad timing to write this, but please remember that the US invasion has caused the death of 600.000? 1.500.000? Iraqis.

Any data on suicides? It used to be the second cause of death for conscripts not so long ago.

I enjoy Freakonomics as much as anybody else. They are certainly clever people who offer interesting analysis. The problem is that it's almost useless. They can't offer solutions, and when they do (global warming) they are impractical. Not all thought processes are good in themselves. A lot of them take you to dead ends.

Anyone talking about the fatalities in the countries the US military is engaged?

Fortunately the persons concerned don't have a voice nor a lobby.

Or: read Jean Ziegler, La haine de l'Occident ("Hate For the West"). A revelation. It is exactly this occidental view that fires the hate, which we don't understand.

"On the small screen the preacher, with carefully cultivated gesture and word, was saying that he knew his saviour, the only saviour, was living; if he was not living, there would be no hope for the world. The aggressive thrust of his arm drove away any doubt, any enquiry, for he knew and you must stand up for what he knew, for his knowledge is your knowledge, your conviction. The calculated movement of his arms and the driven word were substance and encouragement to his audience, which was there with its mouth open, both young and old, spellbound and worshipping the image of their mind. A war had just begun and neither the preacher nor his large audience cared, for wars must go on and besides it is part of their culture.

On that screen, a little later, there was shown what the scientists were doing, their marvellous inventions, their extraordinary space control, the world of tomorrow, the new complex machines; the explanations of how cells are formed, the experiments that are being made on animals, on worms and flies. The study of the behaviour of animals was carefully and amusingly explained. With this study the professors could better understand human behaviour. The remains of an ancient culture were explained; the excavations, the vases, the carefully preserved mosaics and the crumbling walls; the wonderful world of the past, its temples, its glories. Many, many volumes have been written about the riches, the paintings, the cruelties and the greatness of the past, their kings and their slaves.

A little later there was shown the actual war that was raging in the desert and among the green hills, the enormous tanks and the low-flying jets, the noise and the calculated slaughter; and the politicians talking about peace but encouraging war in every land. The crying women were shown and the desperately wounded, the children waving flags and the priests intoning blessings.

The tears of mankind have not washed away man's desire to kill. No religion has stopped war; all of them, on the contrary, have encouraged it, blessed the weapons of war; they have divided the people. Governments are isolated and cherish their insularity. The scientists are supported by governments. The preacher is lost in his words and images."

From 'Krishnamurti’s Journal'
27th Entry, Rome, 17th October 1973


Statistics get you no where even when they are wrong!

Fact. "Fishing and jobs related to it had the highest fatality rate of any occupation — about 112 per 100,000 workers — in 2007, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data."

Fact "Fishers and related fishing workers - 45-3011. Number of workers 38,000 in 2006" US Bureau of stats.

It seems to me that suggests about 43 US fishermen die in a year.

I have an aversion to regarding anyone's death as part of a statistic. Statistics like this devalue life.

For me photography at its best celebrates, reveals or informs us about others lives and statistics are not a part of it.

Landscapes you say, well I don't regard Ansel Adams grossly manipulated prints as the best of photography. That is personal choice.


This is my first post. I would like to thank you for a first rate blog. Your writing and the comments of your readers are fantastic. I very much appreciate this.

Yesterday's photo-story was very compelling. I'm most impressed by the access the photographers had which is a doubled edged sword. On one hand I'm sure the young soldier's attention and continual presence by reporters and photographers affected his entry into the Army when compared to someone that wasn't followed by such folks. On the other... to have the story in pictures and have it be so complete... that's neat stuff for anyone.

As for your last point about the fatality rate and what it might mean, our society's expectation of injury when doing anything whether driving or being in combat is so much different now than years ago. What might have been totally acceptable/assumed inevitable years ago is easily now considered unacceptable. I think the best opinions are formed when you have perspective. Data like this definitely helps forming that perspective, an historical perspective.

As an aside, I've been associated with military aviation for 25 years now. Looking at your list of dangerous jobs and combining "soldiering and piloting" into what I do, some might consider me a sort of danger seeker or something. Far from it. I consider what I do a day job that has a likelihood of doing harm to me as much as sitting at my desk all day long. In fact, I think my photography trips have a tendency to be more "risky" than anything I might do while piloting.



Economics is the study of how people respond to various kinds of incentives. Think about it.

Unfortunately, Levitt has made a complete laughingstock of himself with "Super Freakonomics." You simply can't believe any of his "data."

Check out


Also see Elisabeth Kolbert's review in the New Yorker this week.

Yes, I disagree with the book's take on climate change as well. But then I tend to pick and choose with most books I read; for instance, in Susan Jacoby's book "The Age of Unreason" she has what I thought was an excellent explication of middlebrow culture that I thought was worth the price of the book; the rest of it I can take or leave. In "SuperFreakonomics" I liked the chapter on apathy and altruism (although not their attraction to the view that altruism usually isn't) and the decoding of the Kitty Geneovese myth (lots of vivid popular ideas are false). In general, I enjoy pop economics books ("The Undercover Economist," "The Ascent of Money," "Predictably Irrational") for their tendency to look at things in a new light and question assumptions, but I'd never take the authors' viewpoints or the various conclusions as gospel.

Interestingly, I knew that "Superfreakonomics" would be emotional and partisan in places because the authors go to considerable pains in the beginning to explain that they remove emotionality and partisanship from their discussions. [g]


Might be interesting to compare some mortality numbers for Afghanis. I'd guess you'd have to go back before the Soviet invasion to find some semblance of "peace". A soldier's tour of duty can be measured in months, while in Afghanistan a child will have grown and seen themselves, their children and their grandchildren be brutalised by events beyond their control.

Is it possible to impose freedom successfully?

Mike, thanks for your cordial reply. I don't have any beef with you at all. I just can't abide Levitt's nonsense.

Kolbert says it succinctly:

"To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness."

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/16/091116crbo_books_kolbert?currentPage=3#ixzz0WrTSCRVX

Here are two guys who can't even be bothered to make sure they got their basic arithmetic right, who make the most outlandish and ludicrous claims -- which just happen to reinforce a bunch of emotionally-driven prejudices -- in areas they have no expertise in, and want readers to believe that it's the scientific experts in those fields who are emotional and partisan. Right.

Whenever someone's that wrong about stuff that's easy to check, in my experience, you can't take anything they say at face value. I wouldn't believe any of their statistics without looking them up for myself first.

Not to pile on here, but this really offended me:

It seems that practicing to fight a war can be just about as dangerous as really fighting one.

So, the fatality rate for US armed forces is lower right now than it has been during certain "peacetime" periods in the past. Based on this, Levitt concludes the fighting wars isn't dangerous? Really? There's no other factors that could explain this? The military hasn't improved it's tactics, equipment, training, etc, at all in the last 30 years? You would think a published economist would understand that correlation does not equal causation, or the concept of a lurking variable, but apparently not.

Personally, I'm quite sure that if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended tomorrow, our armed forces would experience a further reduction in the rate of fatalities they experience. But what do I know? I'm not an economist, and those guys are never wrong...

There is a huge difference.

Those soldiers who die volunteered to die for you and me.

The others volunteered to take a risk to line their pockets, to make a living for them and theirs alone.

Money is not the difference. Social sacrifice versus self interest is the difference.

By the way, how many of those other self interested occupations spend a year away from hearth and home, suffer from PTSD, have TBI various and various other maimings, all for the benefit of others?

Dave Ralph

Of course there's a big difference. No one's arguing there isn't.

I could take issue with both your points, however. Some people do join the military as a job--that's why the lower classes are so disproportionately represented. And, nobody volunteers to die--they volunteer to serve and take the risk of dying. It's a subtle difference but it certainly exists. Nobody expects to come home a quadriplegic or burned beyond recognition, and everybody hopes to come home. That's what made the kamikaze pilots such anomalies, and it's why we think suicide bombers are nuts.

Just so you know, I'm in favor of a universal draft. I think if anybody's kids are fighting, everybody's ought to be.


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