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Reporters are crazy on the subject of people who serve in the military.

I don't mean that they're rabid, soldier hating libruls; I just mean that their logic circuits seem to be utterly short-circuited by the news that people were soldiers once, and young. The name "Vietnam", (and increasingly, Iraq) is like the secret brainwashing code word in a bad forties movie; it causes reporters to print, without questioning them, awful statistics.

I noticed this in 2005, when it came to my attention that the UPI had uncritically passed along the news that 300,000 of the homeless were veterans, half of them Vietnam-era veterans.

Let's unpack this number. About 2 million people in America are though to be homeless, but the overwhelming majority of them--about 90%--are not actually what we think about when we think of homelessness, which is to say someone living on the street. They're people living in long-term shelters, with relatives or friends--in far from ideal housing situations that the government wants to get them out of. Unsurprisingly, these tend to be single mothers with children; the government is far less predisposed to care if a 25 year old man has to crash on a friend's couch for weeks at a time.

Then you have the hard core: the chronic, or streeted homeless. These are the overwhelmingly male cadre that most of us associate with homelessness: the panhandlers, the crazy guy who talks to himself and walks around in a t-shirt in January. There are 200-300K of them total.

Next time someone panhandles you, take a careful look at him. Is he in his fifties or sixties? You'll notice he is not. That is because, tragically, homeless people who live on the street tend to die very young. Almost all of them have severe mental illnesses, drug/alchohol problems, or both. Even if they weren't living on the street, these things would kill them young, but sleeping outside tends to bring on pneumonia, and the homeless are very frequently victims of violence.

But Vietnam ended in 1975. Since it took about a year to get shipped to Vietnam, and the youngest you could enlist was 17 (the draft started at 18) the very youngest any Vietnam vet could possibly have been was 47. But that isn't the likely age, because most vets were older than 17, and the conflict peaked in 1967. Most Vietnam era vets are now in their late fifties. It should have taken ten minutes to dismiss this claim as ludicrous claptrap from an overeager advocacy group. Instead, the innumerate reporter with a poor grasp of history printed it on a newswire service. It's still showing up on liberal blogs.

The New York Times is apparently not content with passing along those sorts of silly numbers; it wants to make up its own. I'm just sort of flabbergasted. Did the reporters really not realize that they should, um, check the murder rate among the general population, and see if it was, like, lower than the rate among returning Iraq veterans, before they, um, published a story claiming that war is turning Our Fine Boys and Girls into Psychotic Killers?

I went into the article thinking no, the conservative bloggers must be being unfair. But it's not only that bad; it's worse. More than 20% of these psychotic murders are . . . drunken driving incidents. Yes, the New York Times has discovered, with great fanfare, that military-aged males like to consume alchohol and then drive home. The one thing it apparently wasn't able to discover is how many people have served in Iraq/Afghanistan--or at least, I can't find that number in the article. Nor did they take the seemingly blindingly obvious step of using that number to generate a homicide rate and then comparing that against the general population. I mean, it's possible that the rate is higher--I would assume that, ceteris paribus, people in the military are less likely to commit homicide, so maybe service is turning them into gun-crazed lunatics. But the New York Times article certainly doesn't offer any evidence to convince me that it is so.

I don't, by the way, think that this is some sort of liberal media conspiracy, before the commenters start in. I think that reporters are often innumerate, and too willing to believe bizarre things about combat troops because they've never actually met any.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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