Attrition: Camp Followers Can't Complain

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May 23, 2007: For every hundred American soldiers in Iraq, there are 89-90 civilians working for the military. The current increase in combat against terrorists in Iraq has increased the casualty rate of these civilians. Until this year, the troops had a casualty rate about three times that of the civilians. But so far this year, the civilian casualty rate has gone from a third of the military one, to half the military one.

Armies have always had civilians along, to perform support functions. The historical term is "camp followers." In times past, the ratio of civilians to soldiers was often much higher, like eight civilians for every one soldier. Only the most disciplined armies (like the ancient Romans at their peak), kept the ratio closer to one to one. But when conscript armies became common in the 19th century, it was suddenly cheaper to replace many of those civilians with conscripts (who were paid a nominal wage.) Now that armies are going all-volunteer, it's gone back to the old days, where it's cheaper to have civilians performa lot of support jobs.

It's a lot safer to be a contractor in Iraq, than a soldier. Only 917 contractors have died there, which means you are three times more likely to get killed if you are in uniform. Most of these civilian contractors work in the well defended bases, and most of the contractor casualties are among those (about a quarter of the total) who do security or transportation jobs that take them outside the wire. But even those have a lower casualty rate than the combat troops. For the really dangerous work, the troops are used. But working in a combat zone is still dangerous, no matter what your work clothes look like.

Another little discussed (in the mass media) aspect of casualties in Iraq is that they are much lower than in Vietnam, where you were more than twice as likely to get hurt in combat. Even with civilian workers suffering less than half that rate, why take the risk? It's the money. A year in Iraq pays more than several years of work back home, so recruiting civilians is no problem.

 


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