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How American Troops Cheat Death
by James Dunnigan
January 24, 2011

Last year, 499 American troops died in Afghanistan, but more than ten times as many were wounded, and survived. There is also a trend going on here. Last year, eight percent of the wounded died, compared to eleven percent in 2009. There are several reasons for more troops surviving battle wounds (and injuries from accidents). An obvious cause is body armor. Improvements over the past decade, in terms of design and bullet resistance, account for about 20 percent of the decline in casualties. There's a down side to this, as the body armor is heavier and cumbersome. This reduces a soldier's mobility, and increases casualties a bit (and saves some enemy lives as well.)

Another major factor is medical care, which has gotten much better, quicker and faster. Not only are procedures more effective, but badly wounded soldiers get to the operating table more quickly. Medics now have capabilities that, during Vietnam, only surgeons possessed. Movement of casualties to an operating room is much faster, partly because of better transportation, but also because of more efficient methods, and operating rooms that are placed closer to the battlefield. Another major factor is the change in what caused casualties. Explosions (like roadside bombs) are less likely to cause fatal wounds. For example, currently 12.9 percent of bullet wounds are fatal, compared to 7.3 percent for bombs and 3.5 percent for RPGs (and grenades in general). The enemy in Afghanistan prefers to use roadside bombs, because U.S. troops are much superior in a gun battle. All this contributed to the changing the ratio of wounded-to-killed, that was 6-to-1 in Vietnam, to 10-1 now.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, there has also been a dramatic reduction in combat deaths compared to Vietnam, and previous 20th century wars. The death rate (adjusting for the number of troops involved) in Iraq was a third of what it was in Vietnam. It's even lower in Afghanistan. There was such a massive reduction in combat deaths that the percentage of deaths that were from non-combat causes actually went up. For example, there were 47,359 (81.4 percent) combat deaths in Vietnam, and 10,797 (18.6 percent) from non combat causes. In Iraq it is 80 percent and 20 percent. In Afghanistan it is 70 percent and 30 percent.

There are also differences in the types of casualties. For example, in Vietnam, bullets caused 38 percent of the deaths. In Iraq, it was only 19 percent and 27 percent in Afghanistan. The Iraqis are notoriously bad shots, even though the urban battle space in Iraq was very similar to Vietnam. There is more of a tradition of marksmanship in Afghanistan, despite (or probably because of) the frequently longer distances involved. The superior body armor has made life much harder for enemy marksmen, as chest shots are now frequently useless and fatal head shots are very difficult.

In Vietnam, 15.7 percent of U.S. combat deaths were caused by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), while in Iraq and Afghanistan it peaked at about 60 percent, and then declined. Casualties were avoided, or made less severe with the development of special armored vehicles (MRAPs) that reduced the impact of the explosives. The roadside bomb is a much less effective weapon, a loser's weapon, because it kills more civilians than enemy troops and played a major role in turning the locals against the Iraqi terrorists and Afghan Taliban.

Aircraft related deaths (from crashes) were 14.6 percent of the combat fatalities in Vietnam, while it was only a few percent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current helicopters were built with Vietnam experience in mind, and are more resistant to damage and safer to crash land in. Ground vehicle related deaths were two percent in Vietnam, but more than double that in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the ground vehicle deaths were non-combat related. That's because from World War II to the present, the U.S. armed forces put huge numbers of trucks and other vehicles on roads (often poorly maintained, or shot up), at all hours, in all weather and with drivers fighting fatigue. There being a war on, the vehicles often proceeded at unsafe speeds.

What made the experience so different today, versus past wars? It was a combination of things. The most important difference is that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting smarter. While the Vietnam era troops were representative of the general population, the post Vietnam era army is all-volunteer and highly selective. The troops are smarter, healthier and better educated than the general population. During the last three decades, new attitudes have developed throughout the army (which always got most of the draftees). The army, so to speak, has become more like the marines (which was always all-volunteer, and more innovative as a result). This ability to quickly analyze and adapt gets recognized by military historians, and other armies, but not by the media. It also saves lives in combat.

This innovation has led to better training, tactics and leadership. Smarter troops means smarter and more capable leaders, from the sergeants leading fire terms (five men) to the generals running the whole show. Smarter troops leads to tactics constantly adapting to changes on the battlefield. The better tactics, and smarter fighting, has been the biggest reason for the lower death rate.

Better weapons and equipment have made U.S. troops less vulnerable to attack. GPS guided weapons have made the biggest difference. There are now GPS guided bombs, shells and rockets. This enables troops to hit a target with the first shot, and be closer to the explosion (the better to move right in and take care of armed enemy survivors). Another benefit is much fewer civilian casualties. In both Iraq and Vietnam, the enemy frequently used civilians as human shields, and the better trained American troops were able to cope with this in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And then there was night vision gear. This first appeared during Vietnam, but in four decades, the stuff has gotten better, lighter and cheaper. Every soldier has night vision now, as do most combat vehicles. There are also better radios, better uniforms, even better field rations. It all made a difference.

Then there was the Internet, which enabled the troops to get in touch with each other. This made a big difference. Not just for the grunts, but also for the NCOs and officers. Each community had different problems and solutions. With the Internet, they could easily discuss the problems, and quickly share the solutions. The troops did this by themselves, and it was up to the military to play catch up. Life saving tips are passed around with unprecedented speed. This made a major difference in combat, where better tactics and techniques save lives.

Computers and video games had an impact as well. The draft ended about the same time that personal computers and video games began to show up. So there have been three decades of troops who grew up with both. It was the troops who led the effort to computerize many military activities, and video games evolved into highly realistic training simulators. The automation eliminated a lot of drudge work, while the simulators got troops up to speed before they hit the combat zone. Computers also made possible doing things with information, especially about the enemy, that was not possible before. A lot of troops understand operations research and statistical analysis, and they use it to good effect. Research has also shown that heavy use of video games trains the user to make decisions faster. That's a lifesaver in combat.

UAVs and Trackers took a lot of the fog out of war. For nearly a century, the troops on the ground depended on someone in an airplane or helicopter to help them sort out who was where. In the last decade, the guy in the air has been replaced by robots. UAVs, especially the hand held ones every infantry company has, now give the ground commander his own recon aircraft. He controls it, and it works only for him. Combat commanders now have a top-down view of his troops, and the enemy. This has made a huge difference, creating some fundamental changes in the way captains and colonels command their troops. For higher commanders, the GPS transponders carried by most combat vehicles, provides a tracking system that shows a real-time picture, on a laptop screen, of where all your troops are. This takes a lot of uncertainty out of command.

Living conditions enabled troops in combat to be more alert and effective. Some civilians think air-conditioned sleeping quarters for combat troops, and lots of other goodies in base camps, is indulgent. It is anything but. Getting a good night's sleep can be a life-saver for a combat soldiers, and AC makes that possible. Showers, Internet links to home and good chow do wonders for morale, especially for guys getting shot at every day. Good morale means a more alert, and capable, soldier. The combat units often go weeks, or months, without these amenities, but the knowledge that these goodies are there, and eventually to be enjoyed, takes some of the sting out of all the combat stress. The rate of combat fatigue in Iraq has been much lower than in Vietnam, or any previous war.

The enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan was not as effective as the Vietnamese were. The Taliban are more effective than the Iraqis, but not by much. All this is partly this is due to cultural factors, partly because in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were sending trained soldiers south. The North Vietnamese also had commandos ("sappers"), who, while small in number, caused a lot of anxiety, and casualties, among U.S. troops. The irregular (Viet Cong) troops in South Vietnam, where largely gone after 1968 (as a result of the failed Tet Offensive), but even these fighters tended to be more deadly than the average Iraqi gunman or Afghan warrior. The Iraqi troops have had a dismal reputation for a long time, but they can still be deadly. Just not as deadly as their Vietnamese counterparts. The lower fighting capability of the Iraqis saved lots of American lives, but got far more Iraqis (including civilians) killed. The Afghans have a more fearsome reputation, but in practice they are no match for professional infantry. And conventional wisdom to the contrary, they have been beaten many times in the past. They are blessed, after a fashion, to live in the place that is not worth conquering. So whoever defeats them, soon leaves.

Finally, there is the data advantage. The military (especially the army, which has collected, since Vietnam, massive amounts of information on how each soldier died) has detailed records of soldier and marine casualties. The army, in particular, collects and analyzes this data, and then passes on to the troops new tactics and techniques derived from this analysis. The army restricts access to the data, as it can provide the enemy with useful information on how effective they are. Some basic data is made public, but the details will be a locked up for decade or more. Studying this data is a full time job for many people in the military, and there is a constant stream of suggestions resulting from this analysis, and those suggestions often turn into yet another small decline in combat deaths.

 


 

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