Dissing our troops

The New York Times perpetuates the myth of the wacko vet

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Last Sunday The New York Times published a nearly 7,000-word investigative report (it started on the front page under a three-column hed above the fold, and filled more than two full pages inside) that is a testament to what can be accomplished by journalists who lack brains or integrity, but who possess an agenda.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

The theme of the story, headlined "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles," is that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, scarred by the horrors they experienced, have launched a murder spree upon returning to the United States.

"Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities," wrote reporters Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez. "Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak."

What is the basis for this startling conclusion?

Apparently Ms. Sontag and Ms. Alvarez did a search of the Nexis database of newspaper articles and found 121 stories of murders committed by veterans since the war on terror began. They then described some of those murders in lugubrious and exhaustive detail.

"'He came back different' is the shared refrain of the defendants' family members, who mention irritability, detachment, volatility, sleeplessness, excessive drinking or drug use and keeping a gun at hand," wrote Ms. Sontag and Ms. Alvarez.

Ms. Sontag and Ms. Alvarez apparently have learned what little they "know" about the military from Rambo movies, and never learned much about statistics. (They lumped involuntary manslaughter with homicide, and those merely charged with those who have been convicted, which makes the statistical correlations they didn't bother to do more difficult.) Their story doesn't just grossly exaggerate and sensationalize a problem, it fabricates one that mostly doesn't exist. It's the sloppiest, most biased story I've ever seen in journalism.

The 121 murders have to be placed in context. More than half a million soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. So have at least 200,000 Marines, sailors and airmen. That means that for every combat veteran who committed a murder, there were (at least) 5,785 who didn't. The murderers among the vets amount to about 17 per 100,000.

So how does this compare with the civilian population?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were, on average, 8.7 murderers per 100,000 people annually between 1976 and 2005. The figure for combat veterans is nearly twice that high. Sounds like a problem.

But hold your horses. The 121 murders committed by veterans have been since the war on terror began, a period now of more than six years. To be kind to the New York Times reporters, let's call it four years, from the time vets would have been returning from Iraq. That means the annual rate of murders by combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is about 4.5 per 100,000, or about half that of the civilian population.

Hold your horses tighter. Most murders are committed by young men. Males accounted for 88.8 percent of all homicides for the period studied, according to the Justice Department. Both men and women aged 18-24 accounted for 36.6 percent, men and women aged 25-34 for 28.4 percent. But the armed forces are comprised overwhelmingly of men in those age groups. In 2005, there were 26.5 murderers per 100,000 people aged 18-24. For those aged 25-34, there were 13.5 murderers per 100,000.

"To match the homicide rate of their peers, our troops would have had to come home and commit about 150 murders a year, for a total of about 700 to 750 murders between 2003 and the end of 2007," noted retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters.

Their civilian peers are five times more likely to commit murder than are vets of Iraq and Afghanistan. Seems to me that if there's a problem, it's with the civilians, not the soldiers. But Ms. Sontag and Ms. Alvarez had a "narrative" -- perpetuating the myth of the wacko vet -- and they ignored, or twisted, pertinent facts that didn't fit it.

The editors of The New York Times seem to be mad at our soldiers and Marines for winning the war in Iraq. Maybe that's because they've embarrassed the editorial board, which has declared the war lost more often than Hillary Clinton uses the word "change," and diminished the prospects for a Democratic victory in November.



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