Drunken driving is apparently more deadly for U.S. soldiers than even the Persian Gulf war, according to Pentagon figures.
More than 1,500 service members died last fiscal year, perhaps half in auto accidents. Despite the war, the death toll is expected to be lower this year.
One likely reason: Many U.S. troops were based in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is prohibited.
"The largest killer of service members is auto accidents, the majority alcohol-related," said Maj. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesman. "You've got one-quarter of military operations in an area with no alcohol and not too many driving private vehicles. That makes up for a lot of it."
Some alcohol has undoubtedly been smuggled into Saudi Arabia, but Pentagon officials have said that disciplinary problems among U.S. troops have been far fewer there than elsewhere because of the Saudi ban on liquor.
The grim arithmetic of U.S. casualties in the gulf does not acknowledge, of course, the devastating loss each American's death represents for family and friends. Nor has the human cost of the war been fixed for Iraq, which suffered perhaps tens of thousands of deaths.
However, by historical standards U.S. combat deaths were extremely low for such a huge operation. Officials credit in part a high-tech air war that pummeled enemy troops from a distance until they could be quickly overrun on the ground.
Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, allied military commander in Saudi Arabia, said Wednesday that the relatively light U.S. casualties in the war were "almost miraculous."
Indeed, participants in Operation Desert Storm probably had a better chance of staying alive than members of the 25-34 age group at home in the United States, said Dan McCarthy, vice president of the American Academy of Actuaries.
"Obviously, any death is unfortunate in war, and it matters an awful lot to the families, but overall the numbers in relation to the U.S. population are not that large. The numbers are strikingly low," he said.
According to the Pentagon, 225 U.S. service members have died in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 89 in combat. Another 45 are reported missing.
Mr. McCarthy said more deaths could be expected among the same number of Americans of roughly the same ages at home -- with accidents, suicides and homicides accounting for half the fatalities.
Aside from the conduct of the war itself, the lack of alcohol probably helped limit the death rate among the troops, the actuary said.
In addition, soldiers are likely to be healthier than the population at large, and troops live in a "more controlled environment" than many young Americans at home, he said.
Major Hart said a total of 1,574 members of the active-duty U.S. armed forces died from all causes in fiscal year 1990, which ended Sept. 30. That includes 21 who died in the first two months of Operation Desert Shield, according to the Pentagon.
This year's figures are incomplete, but the Pentagon spokesman said that "it appears that for the first half of fiscal year 1991, the death rate among service members is actually down from the same time last year."
More than half of the deaths in 1990 were from accidents, and in 1988, the last year for which a tally of auto fatalities was available, 778 service members died on highways -- more than three times the number killed in the gulf war, he said.