One of the difficulties one has with wrapping one's head around the news from Iraq is the matter of perspective. Most people who try to stay informed have a general idea of how many US soldiers have been killed in Iraq (1653 when I pulled together my statistics, a few more now), and they may know the approximate number of troops in theater (somewhere around 140 thousand). With a bit of simple math they can work out the odds but, aside from the sense that Iraq is not altogether a safe place, they will lack the context to answer the question -- "How dangerous is that?"
To compare solidering with other professions we need to convert the statistics to the units that are usually used for such things: annual fatalities per hundred thousand full time workers. So let's do so. As I said, we will use 1653 as the total fatalities due to enemy action and accidents for the war so far. The war has been going on for 2.2 years which makes the annual fatality rate 751. Using a figure of 140 thousand for the average strength in theater we divide by 1.4 to get the fatalities per hundred thousand or 536 annual deaths per 100,000 soldiers. So, how dangerous is that, then?
Well let's see, the most dangerous job category in the US, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is "lumber cutter" with 117.8 annual deaths per hundred thousand full time workers. So, our calculation suggests that being a soldier in the Iraqi theater is 4.6 times as dangerous as being a lumberjack. Now that's pretty alarming if your kid is being sent to Iraq; cutting lumber sounds like a dangerous sort of job and soldiering is several times as bad. But then, most of us aren't in the timber cutting industry and few of our son's considered lumberjacking as an alternative before they decided to sign up. So we know that being a soldier is 4.6 times as dangerous as being a lumberjack but we still can't answer the question -- "So, how dangerous is that, then?"
Looking for an example a bit closer to home I thought about my son and the choices he and some of his friends made. He spent nine months in Iraq as a driver for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and was part of the 3rd Infantry's assault on Baghdad. He's an outdoorsy young man and might enjoy the life of a lumberjack -- but I don't remember timber cutting as a career path he considered. He decided to join the Army and some of his friends -- with similarly lackluster academic performances in high school -- decided to stay home and enroll in the local community college. Our question then: how does going to Iraq and being shot at most every day compare to living at home with your parents and going to the local community college?
As my measure of the risks of going to the local community college I will assume the student makes the commute on a small motorcycle and further assume that the ride is the only risk involved. The reality is that many students will choose a safer form of transportation but incur other risks that I am not addressing. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the motorcycle fatality rate in 2003 as 38.38 deaths per 100 million passenger miles. That doesn't sound too bad -- 100 million miles is to the moon and back 50 times. To equal the 751 deaths in Iraq you would need 1.96 billion motorcycle passenger miles.
... or about 14,000 miles per soldier per year. Map quest tells me that the main campus of our county's community college is 15 miles away. That's 30 miles round trip. Multiply that by five days a week and 50 weeks a year and you get 7,500 miles a year -- and twice that much if you come home for lunch every day. So now we can answer our question. How dangerous is it to be a soldier in Iraq? It is somewhat more dangerous than staying home and studying library science at the local community college -- but only if you take your lunch and eat on campus. If you go home for lunch it's safer to let the Iraqis shoot at you.
Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Federal Highway Administration; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.