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The Few, The Fallen, The Never Forgotten
by James Dunnigan
May 30, 2010

The U.S. Department of Defense is now paying travel expenses for families (the spouse, children, parents, in-laws, and siblings) to visit memorials for military personnel who died while in active duty. This follows a recently enacted, and mandatory, policy of establishing memorials. At their home bases, for all troops who die on active duty. All this is the result of a dramatic decline in American combat casualties in the last two decades.

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated what well trained, equipped and led American troops could do. During that five day campaign, there were 12 American casualties a day per division. That was a historic low. By comparison, during D-Day, the five divisions involved suffered over 1,200 casualties per division per day. But 1991 turned out to be the beginning, not the end, of casualty reduction. Then came Iraq. People in the Pentagon, and military historians, were shocked at the low casualty rate of U.S. troops during the 2003 invasion. The casualties (killed, wounded missing) per division per day were about SEVEN.

The worst day, for American combat casualties in modern warfare, was June 6, 1944. This was D-Day, the allied invasion of France. On that day, 73,000 U.S. troops landed (most over the beach, but 20 percent by parachute and glider), and 2,499 (3.4 percent) died within 24 hours.

Let's put that low, 2003, casualty rate, into perspective. During World War II the daily losses per American division were usually over a hundred a day. On the Russian front, it was often several hundred casualties a day for German and Russian divisions. American casualty rates remained the same through Korea and Vietnam.

Other nations had similar experiences. The spectacular six week German conquest of France in 1940, saw their combat divisions taking 30 casualties (on average) per day. But during another spectacular military victory, the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli casualties were 110 per division per day, and that actually went down to 90 a day during the less spectacular 1973 war. So by any measure, American troops have learned how to avoid getting hit. That continued after 2003. When the Iraqi Sunni Arabs began their terror campaign in late 2003, and the media was full of stories of American casualties, no one pointed out that the losses were again at a historical low. In 2004, there were 4.5 casualties per division per day, while in 2005, that went down to about 3.5. All this time, the troops were heavily engaged. Even at its peak, the casualty rate never went above ten per division per day. The casualty rate was lower in Afghanistan. There were also fewer deaths. As a result, American troops in Iraq had a death rate one third of that suffered in Vietnam, Korea and World War II. It's even less in Afghanistan.

A thousand American troops have died in Afghanistan since U.S. forces first entered in October, 2001. Often compared to Vietnam, Afghanistan has been a much smaller operation, with ten times as many American troops serving in Vietnam. But 58 times as many American troops died in Vietnam. That means that American troops in Vietnam were nearly six times as likely to get killed than those in Afghanistan.

The reasons for all this are pretty simple. It's a combination of better equipment, tactics, weapons, leadership and training than in the past. With an all-volunteer force, the troops are smarter and more physically fit. Many of the life-saving innovations U.S. troops have come up with in the past eight years have not gotten much publicity. Good news doesn't sell, but in this case, it has definitely saved lives.

Some may think that Vietnam is not a fair comparison to the fighting in Afghanistan. OK, consider that while Russia was fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, they lost 15,000 dead. But they had four times more troops serving there, compared to the U.S. (until the recent surge). That means that Russian troops in the 1980s were nearly four times as likely to die as their American counterparts in the 21st century.

With so many fewer American dead, it became possible to put up memorials for each fatality. During World War II, the memorial was the vast military cemeteries where U.S. dead were buried. But after World War II, nearly all American dead were sent home for burial. There were a few memorials, for particularly notable war heroes, on American bases. But most of the war dead were only memorialized in their home town, often with a plaque (or, as in New York City, several walls) listing the names of those who had died in World War II, and later wars. But now, memorials on bases are mandatory.

It all began after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, where 148 American troops died in combat. Some of their units established memorials for the fallen. This became more common after September 11, 2001. And now it's required. But only because of the sharply reduced casualty rate.

 

 


 

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