What Fresh Hell Is This?

January 20, 2008

Jack Kelly Sunday

In last Sunday's New York Times, an article called "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles" by Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez described an alarming rise in violence among some veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before going any further on this, I have to say that I was going to blog on it last weekend, but after reading it more carefully I decided to take a pass. For my taste, it dances too closely with anecdotal evidence and then not closely enough with more solid statistics.

So I had a few issues with it - and so does Jack Kelly. His column is here.

Here's how he starts:
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.
To be precise, by my count the text of the article is 6,342 words. But what's an error of nearly 9.4% when you're on a righteous rant? In any event, it is a long article. Unfortunately for Jack, he fixates on just one part:

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. [emphasis added]

Actually it's NOT the theme of the story. But don't take my word on it. Go read the article for yourself (a suggestion, alas, not given by J-Kel as I suspect he doesn't want you to read the article, for if you did you'd see his characterization is grossly incomplete). The article is more about how badly Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome has affected some returning vets - not any sort of "murder spree" spread across the U.S.

The one part he's fixated on is the number 121.

Incidentally, that was my problem, too. Here's how Sontag and Alvarez arrived at that number:
The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.
And then:

The Pentagon does not keep track of such killings, most of which are prosecuted not by the military justice system but by civilian courts in state after state. Neither does the Justice Department.

To compile and analyze its list, The Times conducted a search of local news reports, examined police, court and military records and interviewed the defendants, their lawyers and families, the victims’ families and military and law enforcement officials.

This reporting most likely uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings, especially in big cities and on military bases, are reported publicly or in detail. Also, it was often not possible to determine the deployment history of other service members arrested on homicide charges.

For the prominence of the number in the article, that just didn't seem solid enough for me. But take another look at how Jack Kelly described the research:
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.
And then a paragraph later:
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.
You may be asking yourself right now, "Where did Kelly get the 'lumped involuntary manslaughter with homicide' part?"

Glad you asked. I'll tell you. The only time the word "involuntary" appears in the whole 6,342 word article is in this paragraph:
The Pentagon was given The Times’s roster of homicides. It declined to comment because, a spokesman, Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, said, the Department of Defense could not duplicate the newspaper’s research. Further, Colonel Melnyk questioned the validity of comparing prewar and wartime numbers based on news media reports, saying that the current increase might be explained by “an increase in awareness of military service by reporters since 9/11.” He also questioned the value of “lumping together different crimes such as involuntary manslaughter with first-degree homicide.” [emphasis added]
It came from a quoted Pentagon criticism of the article, not from the article's research. It's the only indication that those two issues were "lumped" together. And seeing that the article is a criticism of the Department of Defense, we should be trusting the Pentagon's characterization of it...why?

While the article does say that:

The Times used the same methods to research homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans for the six years before and after the present wartime period began with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

This showed an 89 percent increase during the present wartime period, to 349 cases from 184, about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The increase occurred even though there have been fewer troops stationed in the United States in the last six years and the American homicide rate has been, on average, lower.

I do think that the Pentagon's criticism of comparing pre-and post-war numbers is valid. It may be (at least in part) because of the greater attention given to returning troops.

The statistics are enough of a weakness that it allowed the Jack Kelly's of the world to pounce. He ends his statistical analysis with this:

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.

But take a closer look at the innumeracy of the spin. The "121 cases" were admitted by the authors to be fuzzy and presumed to be a very low estimate. To their critics it's THE number of cases and then it's that number is crunched with a calculator one place past the decimal point as if it's the exact figure.

Given the bluriness of the data, it's completely possible that more than 750 murders occurred. It's also completely possible that they did not. The exactitude of Jack's "analysis" however shows us his own spin. It's almost like saying that if about 1,000 Pittsburghers were to each buy one loaf of bread today and if a total of exactly $2,240.00 was spent, then each loaf of bread would have cost exactly $2.24.

It ain't necessarily so.

But look at another thing Jack said:
Their story doesn't just grossly exaggerate and sensationalize a problem, it fabricates one that mostly doesn't exist.
Chew on that one for a while. How does one "fabricate" a problem that "mosty doesn't exist"? If it mostly doesn't exist, that means it exists - just very rarely.

For Jack the argument is about how rarely it happens.
Given that many veterans rebound successfully from their war experiences and some flourish as a result of them, veterans groups have long deplored the attention paid to the minority of soldiers who fail to readjust to civilian life.
That's from the Times article. Though you wouldn't know it from Jack Kelly's column. This is from the article, too.

In earlier eras, various labels attached to the psychological injuries of war: soldier’s heart, shell shock, Vietnam disorder. Today the focus is on PTSD, but military health care officials are seeing a spectrum of psychological issues, with an estimated half of the returning National Guard members, 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of marines reporting mental health problems, according to a Pentagon task force.

Decades of studies on the problems of Vietnam veterans have established links between combat trauma and higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, gun ownership, child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse — and criminality. On a less scientific level, such links have long been known.

“The connection between war and crime is unfortunately very ancient,” said Dr. Shay, the V.A. psychiatrist and author. “The first thing that Odysseus did after he left Troy was to launch a pirate raid on Ismarus. Ending up in trouble with the law has always been a final common pathway for some portion of psychologically injured veterans.”

The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, considered the most thorough analysis of this population, found that 15 percent of the male veterans still suffered from full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder more than a decade after the war ended. Half of the veterans with active PTSD had been arrested or in jail at least once, and 34.2 percent more than once. Some 11.5 percent of them had been convicted of felonies, and veterans are more likely to have committed violent crimes than nonveterans, according to government studies. In the mid-1980s, with so many Vietnam veterans behind bars that Vietnam Veterans of America created chapters in prisons, veterans made up a fifth of the nation’s inmate population.

Who's dissing the troops now?


C.H. said...

While I will admit I am a bit confused by this report and don't fully understand it, I can say that the soldiers I have met who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East are good, patriotic people who have served their country honorably.

Schmuck Shitrock said...

I will admit I am a bit confused
This is real progress, C.H. Recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it.

Oh, relax, it was just a snarky joke.