In recent years, the media have run multiple stories about high suicide rates in the U.S. military. These seem to be a good example of media bias and media and public innumeracy.

The media generally hates the military and war. Suicide rates fit their bias that the military and wars are bad.

Innumeracy is the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy. Neither the media nor the public understands the meaning of statistics.

One question the media rarely addresses is whether the numbers they are complaining about are really as bad as they say or imply.

Here are questions I generally do not see answered in media stories about military suicides.

• Is the military suicide rate higher than the civilian suicide rate for person of the same age and gender? One article I saw did address that and, in fact, the civilian suicide rate for the same ages and gender were higher than the military rate. Stories saying or implying that high suicides in the military proves the military and the war are bad actually should have said civilians are more likely to kill themselves than military personnel.

About the only media types likely to do that story are Fox News’s John Stossel or Freakonomics author Steven Leavitt.

140 Army guys committed suicide in 2009 out of about 700,000 active duty soldiers, a rate of 140/700,000 = .02%. According to Wikipedia, the male suicide rate for the entire U.S. in 2005 was 17.7 per 100,000 or 124 for a group of 700,000. That does not take into account age. Military are younger than the population as a whole. Also, only 90 have been confirmed as suicides. The other 50 are suspected to be suicides.

• What percent of the suicides had served in a war zone? One media story said many had not.

• What percent may have been copycat suicides inspired by the suicide of another person at their base and the way he was honored afterward?

• Are military suicides cause by being in the military per se, by serving in a war? Or are they caused by inadequate military budgets that make military service more stressful than in the past and inadequate number of persons in the military to share the burden of deploying to war zones?

Receive email updates from John T. Reed

• If you adjust for thing like criminal convictions (of which the military has more than its share), smoking, excessive drinking, and so on, known characteristics of the military as a group, do you find anything unusual about the suicide rate in the military? I suspect the type of people attracted to the military in non-recession years is a type that has higher suicide rates regardless of whether they join the military. I’m speaking in general of the group, not about every single individual in the military.

• Is there a common cause or are there many categories of causes including marital problems, drug use, brain injuries or illnesses, side effects of prescribed drugs, and so on?

The Marine suicide total for the first 10 months of 2009 was 42. With 203,000 marines that’s a rate of 20.7 per 100,000.

The military authorities need to keep an eye on suicide rates and reasons with an eye toward preventing those that are preventable. But the American people should not be using suicide rates that are arguably normal in such a large group of young men. The military bureaucrats almost always overreact to bad publicity, thereby harming the effectiveness of the military as a result.

On guard duty one night at Fort Bragg in 1969, my instructions said I had to check the end-of-hallway windows of all the 4-stories-tall barracks buildings in the brigade repeatedly throughout the night. “What the hell is that about?” I asked. It was explained to me that years before, a soldier had committed suicide by jumping out a 4th story window at the end of the hallway. Typical idiot “We have to do something” military bureaucrat response.

Indeed, the military may cause a bigger problem of some other kind with one of their suicide fixes.

Most likely, the military’s suicide stats have little or no meaning. Some investigation should be made continuously, but the conclusions the media are trying to engender—that suicides in the military prove the military should not exist or that the wars should be ended—are baloney.

I would completely reorganize the military and withdraw completely from Iraq and Afghanistan if I were in charge, but for reasons unrelated to suicides.

Receive email updates from John T. Reed


John T. Reed