Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Slate Analysis On Iraq Casualty Rate.

Slate has a piece up comparing the casualty rate-- and more importantly, the KIA rate-- in the War in Iraq with that suffered in the War in Vietnam, and finds that, surprise-surprise, the War in Iraq is as deadly as the War in Vietnam, if not more so.

Go read the piece here, and return for comment.

Overall, it's a very good piece. A lot of the article, written by mil-bloggers Philip Carter and Owen West, makes sense. However, it still appears to me that their methodology overlooks some things.

First off, including non-combat deaths is not helpful, given that the standard, non-deployed incidence of non-combat deaths are not provided, i.e., how many soldiers die in traffic accidents in Fort Hood versus how many die in Kuwait. So, I'm not going to include those, as they're not useful.

Second off, the basic comparison doesn't tell one much, because it compares only KIAs. To be accurate, it should compare all KIAs and wounded (did not return to duty). Why? Because what you really want to see is not the rate of combat killed, but the rate of violent incident.

For example, extrapolating from the numbers in the Slate article (and cross-referenced with the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count), I get these numbers:

-- Vietnam 1966 KIA/Wounded: 5,008 KIA/15,024 WND (estimated; the Slate piece mentions a KIA rate of 25% of all wounded)
-- Iraq 2004 KIA/Wounded: 754 KIA/7436 WND

Please note, I used the number of total wounded listed by DoD, including those who returned to duty-- the ICC website regrettably condenses all casualties suffered before April 2004, so one no longer has access to the previously available number.

Anyways, why do I list this out? If Iraq were as deadly as Vietnam, the numbers of KIA *and* wounded would match, as that would indicate a comparable levels of violence.

Oh, but the Slate article notes this, and says Iraq isn't as bloody as Vietnam-- it's only nearly as bloody as Vietnam.

Yet, the article doesn't provide any context to those casualties.

With the exception of the fighting in Fallujah, there have been few major "set piece" actions in Iraq since the regime collapsed. In contrast, Vietnam 1966 saw several major operations involving significant stand-up actions.

The wounded tallies don't track the rather unique nature of the improvised explosive device, a tactic rarely employed in Vietnam.

Yes, a bullet wound and a truck bomb kill a soldier just the same. But a truck bomb can kill many soldiers, while a single bullet kills but one. In stand-up small-unit actions, American soldiers in either Vietnam or Iraq typically inflict many more casualties than they receive. However, a single insurgent with an IED can injure or kill numerous American soldiers.

To boil it down further, in Iraq a hundred roadside bombs could have killed a thousand U.S. soldiers, while in Vietnam a thousand firefights (involving tens of thousands of VC and NVA) could have killed five thousand U.S. soldiers. The difference in the rate of violence becomes tremendously significant when you try to develop a strategy to counter such action, especially when those roadside bombs are sometimes built by the very same terrorists.

And that's what the article misses most by taking basic comparison out of the strategic context. Iraq 2004 may be as bloody as Vietnam 1966, but that doesn't mean that Iraq 2007 will ergo be as bloody as Vietnam 1969. In fact, it's entirely possible that 2004 was the worst year we'll have in the war (I certainly hope so).

In summary, while it's always a useful exercise to look at statistics in creative (and realistic) ways, I feel the authors of the Slate article (veterans themselves) were predisposed towards a certain conclusion, and "walked back the numbers" in order to reach it.

And, in the end, casualty rates are about as useful a judge of strategic performance as the sum total of a team's baseball statistics are in judging its ability to win the World Series. The biggest difference, however, is that at least with baseball you know how many games a team has a left to play at the All-Star Break; in war, you never know if today is the last day you'll have to fight, or whether tomorrow is the worst day you'll ever have.

Like I've said before-- if enemy body counts aren't very valuable indicators of our success, than by extension friendly body counts aren't very valuable indicators of our failure.

UPDATE: Okay, one more question. The article includes the comparison that Iraq KIAs are suffered from a smaller pool of deployed forces, 142,000, than in Vietnam (385,000 in 1966). My question is, what is the teeth-to-tail ratio of each of those deployed forces?

Typically, it's taken ten people in uniform to support one in the foxhole. That number hasn't changed from Vietnam to today, but how many support soldiers are deployed "in country" in Iraq compared to Vietnam? Given modern medical and logistics capabilities, I'd assume there are fewer clerks and cooks in Iraq, but I honestly don't know the answer.

Even assuming that it's only makes a small difference, reducing the in country ratio to only, say, 9-to-1, we also come back to the ratio of violence. How many supply convoys/rear-area bases in Vietnam suffered casualties in 1966? When compared to the bayonet soldiers, is the KIA ratio between Vietnam and Iraq different?

Again, I ask only because qualitative measurements matter--sadly not to the poor families who have to welcome home a flag-draped casket, but most definitely to those who have to plan a strategy for victory.

I rarely argue with you concerning matters of war. But you are completely wrong when you say: "a truck bomb can kill many soldiers, while a single bullet kills but one."
I had a substitute teacher in high school who said he killed 10 germans with one bullet by lining them up first. I am sure he was telling the truth.
Ha ha ha. Interestingly enough, I had a high school history teacher who insisted on lining up all the desks just perfectly so, in his words, he could "shoot a bullet through the first student's head, and go through each head to the back of the classroom."

Given his rather imperious manner, not many of us thought he was joking.
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