2004 November 30 Tuesday
Death Rates Of US Soldiers Understate Intensity Of Iraq Fighting

Brian Gifford argues that the reports of death rates of US soldiers in Iraq are a misleading indicator of the intensity of the fighting.

On the other hand, improved body armor, field medical procedures and medevac capabilities are allowing wounded soldiers to survive injuries that would have killed them in earlier wars. In World War II there were 1.7 wounded for every fatality, and 2.6 in Vietnam; in Iraq the ratio of wounded to killed is 7.6. This means that if our wounded today had the same chances of survival as their fathers did in Vietnam, we would probably now have more than 3,500 deaths in the Iraq war.

Moreover, we fought those wars with much larger militaries than we currently field. The United States had 12 million active-duty personnel at the end of World War II and 3.5 million at the height of the Vietnam War, compared with just 1.4 million today. Adjusted for the size of the armed forces, the average daily number of killed and wounded was 4.8 times as many in World War II than in Iraq, but it was only 0.25 times greater in Vietnam -- or one-fourth more.

Even the total casualty rate understates the intensity of the fighting. The US soldiers in Iraq have much better body armor and so they are taking more hits that do not wound than was the case in Vietnam, Korea, WWII, and previous conflicts. So the intensity of combat is obviously much higher for US soldiers in Iraq than was the case in previous conflicts.

That higher intensity of combat is also likely to translate into more cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Those stress syndrome cases do not show up in the official figures for this or any other war.

A Vietnam Vet points out what those non-fatal wounds frequently mean: disability and even in some cases a life of pain.

It used to be that you were dead if you got gut shot, though it nearly always took a while for you to die. What was so bad about getting gut shot wasn't just the excruciating pain — the pain wasn't so intense once shock set in, but knowing that you were indisputably dead — that death was dragging you by the feet through the mud and you were helpless.

But getting gut shot doesn't always mean getting killed anymore. In 1968 I spent three and a half months in military hospitals and I saw lots of guys who'd survived getting gut shot. In Letterman Hospital in San Francisco there was an entire ward filled with young Americans boys who'd been partially disemboweled by bullets or shrapnel and then "surgically repaired." In the worst cases they would be incontinent, impotent and in nearly constant pain, forever unable to work or to live actively, but at least they had lives ahead of them.

The great hope of the Bush Administration to provide an exit strategy from Iraq is the build-up of Iraqi forces to take over more of the fight and to provide police protection to the population. But New York Times reporters Richard A. Oppel Jr. and James Glanz provide a bleak assessment of the Iraqi National Guard (I.N.G.) and police.

In the northern city of Mosul, almost the entire police force and large parts of several Iraqi National Guard battalions deserted during an insurgent uprising this month. Iraqi leaders had to use Guard battalions of Kurdish soldiers to secure the city, kindling ethnic tensions with Arabs.


Even where there have been apparent successes, there are complications. American officials in Mosul, for example, single out the 106th Iraqi National Guard Battalion as performing with professionalism. But in an interview, the battalion commander said half of his troops were Kurdish, not Arab.


He said the Iraqi National Guard, known as the I.N.G., has only a "little bit more training." They also have serious problems of loyalty and competence. Just a few months ago, he believes, the local National Guard force was complicit in the abduction and killing of its own battalion commander west of Falluja.

"That's what you get out of the I.N.G.," Colonel Gubler said. "They gave up their battalion commander, laid their weapons down, and 23 cars and trucks and massive amounts of ammunition went to Falluja. It's just pitiful."

Note that the Kurds are the only ethnic group in Iraq that can be depended upon to fight hard alongside US forces.

Read the full article. They report on police and I.N.G. soldiers who do not tell their own families what their real job is out of fear that the information will leak out and insurgents will kill them or their families or both.

Continued attacks on police stations and personnel have left the Iraqi police scared and understaffed.

In attacks that have ranged from execution-style slayings to armed raids on police stations, insurgents have made Iraq's fledgling security forces leading targets. Scores have died in the bloodshed, sapping morale in some cities in the restive regions north and west of Baghdad. In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, almost the entire 5,000-man police force deserted when insurgents staged an uprising this month.

In the attack in Samarra on Sunday night, gunmen stormed the police station, looted the armory, seized police cars and then fled after facing no resistance, the Associated Press reported. U.S. troops went to the police station Monday morning and arrested two dozen people, the news agency said, quoting police there.

Note though, that the insurgents do not have a problem recruiting enough people to go into fights at high risk of getting injured or killed.

Thanks to Greg Cochran for the tip on the New York Times story.

Update: Retired Lt. General Hal Moore (who Mel Gibson played in the movie adaptation of the biographical Vietnam Ia Drang battle book Moore co-authored: We Were Soldiers Once And Young) says we have no exit strategy for Iraq.

"We had no exit strategy from Vietnam," said Lt. Gen. Harold G. "Hal" Moore, 82, a retired Army commander who lives in Auburn. "And sadly, we had no exit strategy when we went into Iraq."

Moore's 450-member 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, outnumbered five-to-one, suffered heavy casualties but won the first major battle between U.S. and North Vietnamese regulars at Ia Drang in November 1965.

The Panglossian hawks can't dismiss Moore as being a leftist pussy. From the article above Moore comes across as still very much a warrior and a Christian religious conservative who opposes pornography and other signs of moral decline. Yet Moore clearly sees the problem with the US position in Iraq.

Self-styled "War Nerd" Gary Brecher (which is very likely a pseudonym) says unless we do something clever in Iraq like create an independent Kurdistan our involvement is going to become too expensive.

We need to come up with some kind of counterweight that will keep the Shiites off balance. One simple way is creating an independent Kurdistan. That would keep the Iranians busy for the next hundred years or so, because Kurdistan would cover a lot of Western Iran as well as Northern Iraq. No way Iran would let the Kurds get away with taking that territory, and it would be our turn to sit back and enjoy the game while the Kurds and the Iranians bashed each other. The trouble is, Kurdistan also covers most of Eastern Turkey, and the Turks will go totally insane if we destabilize their borders. If there's anybody I really do feel sorry for in this mess, it's the Turks. They deserve better. They've been our only real ally, and we reward them by turning their neighborhood into Compton.

The Brits would do it, and not think twice about betraying their allies. They always were smarter and colder than us. But Bush? No way he'll do something as smart and realistic as back the Kurds. The best bet is that it's going to be more of the same for the next four years, a weird soundtrack of car bombs and press conferences. "Kaboom!" "Democracy!" "WhooOOOOM!" "Freedom!" MTV-style videos of some poor sucker getting his throat sawn in half while that skinny PR general in Baghdad talks about elections.

Kurdistan is doable in my view. Also, I agree with Brecher about the problem of not being able to afford the Iraq misadventure in the long run. The retirement of the baby boomers is going to cause a fiscal crisis that will have Congress and future Presidents looking for any discretionary spending item that can be cut. So the Jihadists will ultimately win in Iraq unless we can find a solution before the US fiscal problem escalates into the huge crisis that it will become in the next decade.

Brecher also makes the excellent point that it is a mistake to create a situation where the events unfold in a way that makes Muslims think they are defeating the West. This only emboldens them to cause trouble. Bin Laden said he saw the US withdrawals from Beirut and Mogadishu as signs of American weakness and decadence and this emboldened him to launch terrorist attacks against the US. This is one really big reason why it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Either we should have gone in with Powell Doctrine overwhelming force (and Powell abandoned his own doctrine!) or we should not have gone in at all. The insurgency controls towns and cities in Iraq today because the US does not have enough forces to conquer and control Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Yusufiyah, Latifiyah and other locations all at once. The need to do so was foreseeable in advance and some analysts and military officers did say the US forces available to occupy Iraq were too small to do the job. The serving officers who said so were silenced by the Bush Administration and the rest were ignored.

Colin Powell did not live up to his own vow.

“Many of my generation, the career captains, majors and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support. If we could make good on that promise to ourselves, to the civilian leadership, and to the country, then the sacrifices of Vietnam would not have been in vain.”

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 November 30 02:18 AM  Mideast Iraq

Invisible Scientist said at November 30, 2004 7:44 AM:

The causalties include not only the dead, but those soldiers who are sufficiently wounded to
be sent home, and those soldiers who are sufficiently psychologically damaged to be sent home.

In that sense, the percentage of casualties is probably comparable to Viet Nam, even though the
percentage of death is lower.

On the other hand, the Iraqi guerillas and foreign Muslim fighters who are fighting well, might be genetically
different from the Iraqi police who are easily scared by bombs. It seems to be a genetic polarization
between the ones who are destined to rule, and the ones who are destined to obey in that region of the world.

mnw said at November 30, 2004 11:04 AM:

I think the Iraq elections will improve the competence level among Iraqi security forces. There is a trial & error aspect to building such forces. This is not going to be quick & easy, obviously. That NYT piece does note "bright spots," altho over all I think the article is driven by leftwing anti-W zeal, i.e., biz as usual at NYT. Pessimism is the default mode of the left.

gcochran said at November 30, 2004 12:58 PM:

While stupidity is the default mode of what passes for the Right nowadays: I'll take pessmism any time. The Iraqis don't want to fight for us. They don't want us running their country. Can't you get that through your thick head? What would it take to make the point, fiery letters in the sky? Where the hell have you ever heard of armies or security forces that act like the Iraqi National Guard or the Iraqi cops? I can tell you: puppet forces who serve an occupier. In that situation, you get 'friendly' forces who share intelligence with open rebels, who desert before battles, who defect en masse - who shoot you in the back if they get a chance. If they thought they could succeed, a majority of the people now employed in Iraqi security would turn on us and wipe out the American expeditionary force.

The Afghani forces working for the Soviets acted like this.

Derek Copold said at November 30, 2004 1:57 PM:

"I think the Iraq elections will improve the competence level among Iraqi security forces."


Oh, Jeez. Wait. Let me catch my breath.


gcochran said at November 30, 2004 3:30 PM:

Let us talk about pessimism. I would define it as a systematic tendency to predict events that are less desirable than those that actually occur.
The Administration thought that there would be no guerrilla wr, and that they'd be able to drawn down to one division in Iraq by September of 2003. I thought there would be a guerrilla war and that they'd have to keep all the troops there, even have to reinforce. They thought killing Saddam's sone woud help defuse the guerrilla war: I thought otherwise. They thought catching Saddam would help: I thought otherwise. THey thought that proclaiming Iraq 'sovereign' would help. I thought they might as well proclaim it 'transcendent' for all the good it would do.

The US government is 'optimistic' - they quite consistently predict happier things (for them) than actually occur. I am not an optimist, but I am not a pessimist either: my predictions have come very close to actual events.

The New York Times is, on average, somewhat optimsitic about Iraq. They ought to get over that.

Matra said at November 30, 2004 3:30 PM:

Now what we need is for Wretchard of Belmont Club to come along and explain why none of this is really true and how November was actually a really good month for US forces despite the heavy casualty toll.

Stephen said at November 30, 2004 4:40 PM:

Iraqi elections - so is that where people are asked to spend a day queueing up to vote while dodging car bombs, suicide bombers, snipers, mortars, returned fire etc?

Think of the nightmarish logistics of running an election in that environment:

Iraq has a population of 25 million, and lets say 65% are eligible to vote - a mere 16 million people to protect while they queue up; Lets assume 1 polling station for every 2000 voters = 8000 separate stations that will need to be protected by the 160,000 strong occupation force. That leaves us with a mere 20 soldiers to guard each polling station (even assuming that 100% of the force is available for front line duties and all other missions are cancelled). In reality, its more likely to be around 5 soldiers guarding each polling place.

Also, we'll need to protect the civilian election workers at the polling stations - say 10 people per station = 80,000 election workers to protect. Oh, we'll also need to guard each worker's house to make sure he's not picked off before election day (they would appear to be prime candidates for targets as they would certainly be classified as collaborators).

Next, factor in that the soldiers won't simply be tasked with trying to create a safe cordon around a polling station. Rather, they will be spending their time watching everyone in the queue hoping to spot gunmen and suicide bombers. So who will be watching the soldiers' backs? The Iraqi troops and police??

Oh, and lets not forget that we need some soldiers inside the polling place itself in order to keep an eye on the civilian election workers because who knows how many of those 80,000 will be insurgents...

In short, polling day is likely to be a blood bath for the electorate, for the election workers and for the soldiers.

Randall Parker said at November 30, 2004 5:19 PM:


The killings on the day of the election are not the main problem with the election. The main problem with the election is that it is unlikely to lead to a decrease in the insurgency attacks after the election.

I'd like to see the optimistic hawk blogs make their predictions for how much insurgency activity there will be 3, 6, 9. 12 months from now.

My guess is that now that the US election is over and Bush is no longer holding back the US troops from making attacks the US troops will make some headway in breaking up IED factories, seizing arms caches, and so on. That will put some crimp on the insurgency. But I expect the daily US death toll over the next 6 months to average at least 2 per day. Ditto for the following 6 months.

One interesting development might take place though: The need for larger numbers of dependable local troops may lead to an increase in the number of Kurds in the military of Iraq. So when the US finally leaves the Kurds will be in a stronger position to secede.

The biggest problem the Kurds face is financial. They do not have a reliable way to sell their oil. They control territory that has lots of oil. But they have no sea outlet. They have to send their oil out through Syria, Turkey, Iran, or Iraq. What the Kurds need are pipelines running to Syria and Iran to try to get a way to sell oil that doesn't depend on the Turks. The Turks will cut off the Kurdish oil flow in order to prevent Kurdish secession. But can the Kurds get in good with Syria or Iran? Could they offer the Syrians the deal of taking all the Syrian Kurds in exchange for a deal on a pipeline through Syria to sell oil from Kurdish fields?

Stephen said at November 30, 2004 8:27 PM:

Overall, I see the willingness of the Kurds to fight in the Iraqi army as a bad sign for the survival of Iraq. I suspect that they wouldn't be so happy to fight in the Kurdish region (ie against their own people), so it guarantees that the Kurds will be hated by the Sunni and the Shi'a, and probably means that the Sunni's will start actively fighting the Kurds in Kurdish/Sunni border cities like Mosul. This would be a civil war environment presaging the breakup of Iraq.

The Kurdish question is difficult - a homeland is fine in theory but I suspect that the US position is that that would revive the Kurdish secessionist movements in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia etc, which would simply result in regional instability spreading to half a dozen other countries. Also, I don't think its just a matter of moving the Syrian Kurds into Kurdish Iraq. My understanding is that few non-Iraqi Kurds would be terribly enthusiastic about moving out of their relatively safe countries into Iraq. In fact, during the 80s I think the US tried to get the Iranian Kurds to rebel and 'vote' to join Iraq, but the prosperous (relatively) Iranian Kurds didn't really want anything to do with their impoverished brothers across the border.

More importantly from a US perspective, if the Kurds in the north are allowed to secede from Iraq, then the resulting civil war will soon have the ethnic Shi'a in the south fighting the Sunni centre, and then its only a matter of time before Iran actively intervenes on behalf of the Shi'a. This will leave Southern Iraq annexed or at least controlled by Iran. This would give Iran control over much more oil than the Kurds can have as well as removing Iraq's only access to the sea. Then there's little to stop Iran from sending a 'peace keeping' force north.

I have trouble seeing anything positive coming out of Iraq. At best, if the country doesn't disintergrate and if Iran keeps out, we are left with an Afghanistan problem - a vacuum will be filled by extremists or a Sadam-like strongman.

Invisible Scientist said at December 1, 2004 8:48 AM:

Iran will soon be in a position to take over not only Iraq, but also Saudi Arabia.
Remember, the Persian Empire ruled that region many years ago. This is why the Gulf is
called "Persian Gulf." The 25 million Saudis will not be in a position to stop this.
Given the the demand for oil is increasing, and given that most of the oil in the world
is in that region, this conquest is a great project for those who are contemplating it.

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