Iraq body count comparisons

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Allan Schiffman points to an article in Slate that argues that Iraq casualties aren't "light":
Generational contrasts are implicit today when casualties in Iraq are referred to as light, either on their own or in comparison to Vietnam. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, for example, last July downplayed the intensity of the Iraq war on this basis, arguing that "it would take over 73 years for U.S. forces to incur the level of combat deaths suffered in the Vietnam war."

But a comparative analysis of U.S. casualty statistics from Iraq tells a different story. After factoring in medical, doctrinal, and technological improvements, infantry duty in Iraq circa 2004 comes out just as intense as infantry duty in Vietnam circa 1966and in some cases more lethal. Even discrete engagements, such as the battle of Hue City in 1968 and the battles for Fallujah in 2004, tell a similar tale: Today's grunts are patrolling a battlefield every bit as deadly as the crucible their fathers faced in Southeast Asia.

The authors point out (no doubt correctly) that improvements in medical care, military technology and the way we're fighting the war account for the difference. No doubt that's true, but whether it's relevant depends on your perspective, and it seems that the authors aren't really addressing the CSBA's argument head-on.

Let's forget about Iraq for a second and consider a simpler case: farming. Improved technology has dramatically improved the past 100 years with the % of the workforce who farms going from 42% in 1900 to 3% in 1998. Now, let's say for the sake of argument that the farm accident rate/worker hasn't changed (I'm too lazy to look it up). Nevertheless, we can produce the same amount of food for less than 1/10th the cost in terms of dead farmers. Now, Phil Carter comes along and complains that if we used 1900 farming technology we would have the same death rate, but we're not using 1900 farming technology, so it really doesn't matter. The bottom line is that we're much more efficient.

Similarly, if new technology lets us perform the same kind of operation (ignoring for a moment whether Viet Nam and Iraq are equally successful) with less manpower and (more importantly) less deaths, that's a good thing, and it's perfectly reasonable to note that. If we can sustain that rate, then we really are more militarily efficient and that enhances our military capability, which is good.

That said, I think there are several reasonable take-home points from Carter's article:

  • The "intensity" of the combat may be just as high in Iraq as in Viet Nam. This is relevant to the extent to which intensity has harmful effects on soldiers, either psychologically or because the nonfatal wounds are still very damaging. If our death rate is much lower than Viet Nam but the maiming rate is much higher, that doesn't buy us much (note to self: research maiming rates).
  • Up till now we've been mostly fighting the war using the new doctrine that Carter describes (massive air power, etc.) If we have to fight a lot more Fallujah-type battles and those aren't much better than the comparable battles in Viet Nam, then we're left with just the medical and armor improvements, which appear to reduce deaths by only about a factor of two.
  • We can't use the death rate as a proxy for the success of Iraq vs. Viet Nam becuase the rates are incommensurate.

However, I don't think it's fair to complain that without the technical advancements we've made our death rate would be much higher. After all, that's why we introduced the technology in the first place.

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Another interpretation is that we're running a smaller operation than we were in Vietnam, and it's going about equally well.

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