2008: Five years of fighting in Iraq has killed 4,000 American troops. The
first five years of fighting in Vietnam (1965-69) killed 40,258. There were about
three times as many U.S. troops involved in the Vietnam fighting. But even
then, the number of Americans killer per thousand troops in Vietnam was three
times higher (19, versus 6 in Iraq). If the casualty rates were the same in
Iraq, there should have been 13,747 dead so far. However, there were proportionately
more wounded in Iraq. While there were 3.4 times more dead in Vietnam (in
killed per thousand troops), there were only 3.2 times more wounded. Overall,
there were 133 casualties per thousand troops in Vietnam, versus 47 in Iraq.
Why the lower casualty rate? There are several reasons, few of which have gotten
much coverage in the mass media. But the reasons are important.
important difference is that the troops in Iraq are fighting smarter. While the
Vietnam era troops were representative of the general population, the Iraq era
army is all-volunteer and highly selective. The troops are smarter, healthier
and better educated than the general population. This has been the case for
three decades, and during that time, 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.
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 casualty rate.
there's the 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 soldiers mobility, and increases casualties a bit (and
saves some enemy lives as well.)
care has gotten better. 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 had. All this is one reason why the ratio
of wounded to killed was 6 in Vietnam, compared to 7.3 for Iraq.
weapons and equipment. 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 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 better radios,
better uniforms, even better field rations.
Internet enabled the troops 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.
and video games.¬† 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. There are a lot of geeks with guns out there.
Trackers. For 90 years, 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
under-ten-pound 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.
conditions. 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 nights 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.
enemy is not as effective as the Vietnamese were.¬† 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 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. 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.
from now, historians and pundits will be all over the "military revolution" U.S.
troops created in Iraq. But for now, you heard it here first.