Government Report: More Military Deaths in Some Years of Peace Than War

More active members of the military died during two years of peacetime in the early 1980s than died during a two-year period of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a government report.

The Congressional Research Service, which compiled war casualty statistics from the Revolutionary War to present day conflicts, reported that 4,699 members of the U.S. military died in 1981 and '82 — a period when the U.S. had only limited troop deployments to conflicts in the Mideast. That number of deaths is nearly 900 more than the 3,800 deaths during 2005 and '06, when the U.S. was fully committed to large-scale military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The CRS, which is the public policy research arm of Congress, issued its findings in the June report "American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics.", in re-examining the findings, found that — surprising as it may be — there were more active duty deaths in some years of peacetime than there were in some years of wartime.

Military analysts say the current decrease in military casualties, even during a time of war, is due to a campaign by the Armed Forces to reduce accidents and improve medical care on the battlefield.

"It's safer to be in the military because your accidental death rate has gone down; it's safer to be in the military because if you get wounded, you'll probably survive," said John Pike, director of

"Getting killed on the battlefield is one way that people in the military wind up dying, but it's not the main way."

According to the raw figures, of the 2,380 members of the military who died during active duty in 1981, 1,524 were killed in accidents, 145 by homicide, 457 by illness and 241 from self-inflicted wounds. That compares with the 1,942 killed in 2005; of that number, 632 died from accidents, 739 from hostile action, 49 from homicide, 281 from illness, 150 from self-inflicted wounds and 72 whose causes of death were still pending. Eleven deaths in ’81 and 19 deaths in ’05 were classified as “undetermined.”

Click here to read the report.

"Let's not somehow pretend or try to convey the false impression that being at war is being safer than being at peace, of course not," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

"If we stopped these wars we would cut back our annual military fatalities by close to a thousand people, and that's just simple arithmetic."

The numbers, which outline active-duty deaths from 1980 to 2006, show a steady decline in accidents. Experts attribute that decline to campaigns to curb off-duty partying and drunk driving, as well as offering better training before putting troops in hazardous situations. There also are fewer active military members today; the total number of active servicemen and women decreased from a 1986 high of 2.18 million troops to the 2006 level of 1.38 million.

Doug Johnson, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said that initial treatment and airlifts during the so-called "golden hour" after a soldier is wounded have significantly increased troop survival rates.

"You don't hear the classic war movie cry for 'Medics, medics,' because everybody's a medic to a certain extent," he said.

The death-to-wounded ratio has also improved, the study found. Nearly 8 people are wounded for every one who dies in Operation Iraqi Freedom versus the 1 death to 1.7 wound ratio found during World War II.

And the combined totals for illness, homicide, accident and suicide trump troop casualty numbers, Pike said.

"Previously in a war, if you were wounded, you were in big trouble," Pike said. "And now if you're wounded, you're probably going to make it."

But Johnson said it's important to look beyond the raw data.

"The thing that distresses me about it, is it's raw numbers. And while that's interesting, it doesn't reflect percentages, which might be more instructive," he said.