Attrition: How the U.S. Army Replaces Wartime Losses


November 1, 2005: Despite falling short 6,600 recruits last year, and some 10,000 combat losses in the last three years, the U.S. Army has managed to increase the size of its active duty force three percent since late 2001. The main reason for the increase is the willingness of soldiers already in uniform to volunteer for additional service, and for troops from the reserves, and the other services (especially the navy and air force) to transfer to the active army.

Overall, reenlistments are up eight percent. The percentages are even higher in the combat units that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are about 2,200, with some 7,800 troops wounded so severely that they received medical discharges. Actually, many of those troops sought, and some got, medical waivers so they could stay in uniform. These included some amputees, including several in combat units who had to demonstrate they could still do the job with an artificial leg. For those that follow what the troops themselves are saying (via blogs, bulletin boards, email or rare media interviews), the reasons for all this are pretty obvious. The troops believe they are making a difference. They see the evil up close, they fight it and defeat it. They see they people they are helping, and want to keep at it until the job is finished.

There are more practical reasons as well. The army has done a lot to give troops in combat zones tolerable living conditions. Air conditioning, email and good food make a difference. The casualties, as high as they seem, are historically quite low. Better armor, training, leadership and weapons have made combat far less dangerous than it was in past wars. This does wonders for morale. The troops can do the math, and while combat is still a nerve wracking experience, knowing your chances of surviving it are quite high, keeps people going. For combat troops, the risk of getting hit are about a third of what it was in Vietnam. Because the combat troops are so formidable, the enemy deliberately seeks out combat-support troops, and relies more on booby-traps, roadside bombs and suicide attacks to inflict casualties. Even so, the vast majority of combat support troops have very low risk of getting hurt. That's because most of them spend nearly all their time in well defended bases. The combat troops at most risk are the truck drivers in transportation units that move supplies and equipment into, and around, Iraq. The Military Police that escort them also take more casualties than they have in past wars. Finally, the quality of the fighters Americans face in Iraqi is quite low. No one underestimates them, or cuts them any slack, but most of the Iraqi fighters are much less formidable than the North Vietnamese, North Koreans, Chinese, Germans and Japanese faced in previous wars.


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