War's Ripple Effect

January 31, 2007

Between 4.3 million and 6.5 million Americans are likely to know someone who has been killed or injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to new estimates by a Duke sociologist.

Although the number of soldiers killed or wounded is known, the social effect of those deaths and injuries stretches beyond those directly affected to their social network—family, friends, and acquaintances—which is harder to count but likely important in shaping beliefs and behaviors, says James Moody, associate professor of sociology.

"We look at the news, and it seems like something in a movie far away," he says. "It's very different when there's an empty chair at the Christmas table."

Moody, who published his peer-reviewed findings in Structure and Dynamics: eJournal of Anthropological and Related Sciences, got the idea for the paper after listening to a letter read on National Public Radio in which a listener commented that nobody knows how many people are affected by the war's casualties.

"I thought, 'That's not true. We can know, within ranges,'" he says. In sociology, the problem the listener described is known as the "network scale-up" problem, and has been studied extensively by social scientists. Moody calculated his findings using accepted estimates of family and friend networks (twenty-six to forty-nine in the U.S.), casualty estimates of 2,888 soldiers killed and just under 20,000 wounded, and a formula for estimating the number of people who know someone in a given event. The formula is designed to account for the fact that people share some family and friends and to prevent double-counting someone who might know more than one soldier.

The numbers of non-Americans killed and wounded, especially civilians, is difficult to measure. The numbers in the study are based on an estimated 39,460 civilians who have died as a result of coalition action and 30,000 people detained as enemy combatants. The estimate of Iraqi deaths comes from Iraq Body Count, a volunteer group keeping a record of media-reported civilian deaths. The estimate of detainees comes from a March 2005 report by Human Rights First. The calculations are further based on an estimated combined population in Iraq and Afghanistan of 53 million people.

Using the same ranges of the number of family members and acquaintances, Moody also estimated that between 1 million and 1.9 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a family member killed and between 7.1 million and 10.3 million people have had an acquaintance killed. Between 775,000 and 1.5 million people have had a family member detained by the United States and between 5.5 million and 8 million people have had an acquaintance detained.

As for Americans' response, Moody says he thinks the rising number of people who know others who have been killed or injured in the war will continue to have an impact on public opinion.

"As more people know a soldier killed in Iraq, it's going to make the cost of the war more real and immediate," he says. "It's an interesting question as to whether it will cause a greater rallying around the troops or the magnification of the Vietnam effect—once the cost gets so high, you want to leave."