"Feel free to read that again slowly": Daily Sentinel's Harmon misinterpreted military death statistics to assert lower rate under Bush than Clinton

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

Gary Harmon of The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction falsely asserted in his May 31 column that members of the U.S. military "died at a faster rate under Clinton's 'peace' years than Bush's war years." In fact, total deaths of U.S. service members have, in President Bush's sixth year, surpassed those during former President Bill Clinton's eight-year tenure -- according to statistics Harmon cited in his column.

In his May 31 column in The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, Gary Harmon misinterpreted statistics on deaths of U.S. military personnel to falsely assert that "American soldiers, sailors and marines under fire have died at a slower rate during the five years of shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than they did during the eight years of the supposed peacetime of the Clinton years." Harmon also claimed that "Americans in uniform died at a faster rate under Clinton's 'peace' years than Bush's war years." However, the statistics Harmon provided disprove both claims: Six years into President Bush's tenure, total U.S. military deaths already have surpassed those during former President Bill Clinton's eight years in office.

Harmon stated that his source for statistics on the combat and noncombat deaths of U.S. military personnel was the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Manpower Data Center.

From Gary Harmon's column, "Knock on wood, Bush losses are staying low," in the May 31 edition of The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction:

There's a certain knock-on-wood aspect of caution to this observation, but it's worth defying superstition to illuminate the debate over the War on Terror.

It happens that shortly before Memorial Day, the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan passed a sad milestone that went largely ignored.

What happened was the combat death toll among U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years passed the halfway point for the death toll of the entire Clinton administration.

Feel free to read that again slowly.

That's right. American soldiers, sailors and marines under fire have died at a slower rate during the five years of shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than they did during eight years of the supposed peacetime of the Clinton years.

[...]

During those eight years, 7,500 Americans in military service died, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center.

The current death toll from the war on terror hit 3,824 before Memorial Day.

To be sure, combat deaths are higher during war than a supposed peace, but the military can be a dangerous place under any circumstance. The center tracks all causes, including accidents, actions by hostile forces, terrorists (an occasionally useful distinction), illness, undetermined and suicides. The all-causes death toll so far under George W. Bush is about 9,550.

The horrific attacks on American military personnel over the Memorial Day weekend propelled it further beyond the halfway mark, but the fact remains that Americans in uniform died at a faster rate under Clinton's "peace" years than Bush's war years. So far. Knock on wood.

The statistics Harmon provided contradict his claim that "Americans in uniform died at a faster rate under Clinton's 'peace' years than Bush's war years": 9,550 -- the "all-causes death toll" he cited for Bush's six years in office -- is greater than 7,500, the figure given for Clinton's eight-year presidency.

Harmon appears to have based his inaccurate assertion on the fact that the "death toll from the war on terror" -- 3,824 before this Memorial Day, May 28 -- is about half of the total of all military deaths during Clinton's entire presidency. However, combat deaths constitute only a portion of the total number of deaths of U.S. military personnel. The figures that Harmon provided indicate that under Bush, 5,726 military personnel died from noncombat causes before Memorial Day; added to the number of combat deaths, the total number of military deaths under Bush has surpassed those during Clinton's eight years in office.

Harmon's distortion of military death statistics is similar to one contained in a February 20 column by Alicia Colon in The New York Sun and repeated by Rush Limbaugh on the February 21 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show. In her column, Colon compared the number of combat deaths in Bush's first term with the total number of military deaths in Clinton's first term. As Media Matters for America noted, there were fewer total military deaths in Clinton's first term (4,302) than in Bush's first term (5,187). Media Matters also noted that military deaths have increased year-over-year since Bush took office in 2001 -- both in raw terms and as a percentage of the total number serving -- and have increased dramatically since the beginning of the Iraq war.

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