Attrition: What Really Hurts You Isn't Combat


March 18, 2010: Don't believe all the media hype. Most of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have been non-combat. Accidents, disease and stress (physical and mental) problems have, over the last eight years, accounted for 81 percent of those troops flown out so they could get more advanced care. There are about ten of these evacuations for every soldier killed (combat or non-combat). Only 19 percent of those "medical evacuations" were for combat injuries. Thus, in the military hospitals (both in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as back in the United States), the vast majority of combat zone casualties are not there because of combat injuries. 

Over the last year, U.S. troops in Iraq have had more to fear from accidents, disease and stress, than enemy action. Less than half the troops who died, were combat casualties. This is a trend that has been growing for several years. Naturally, few of those in need of hospital care were combat casualties.

Actually, while not caused by combat, a lot of the "non-combat" injuries were the result of combat operations. For example, ten percent of those evacuated had musculoskeletal system problems. The infantry have to carry more weight (sometimes a hundred pounds or more), more often, than anyone else. Back and muscle problems are common. The combat troops are also out and about more, and more likely to catch exotic local diseases. Thus it's not surprising that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, ten percent of the medical evacuations are for "ill-defined conditions." This was first discovered when thousands of American troops were stationed in the Persian Gulf during World War II. Before that, the British warned, from their World War I experience, that Iraq was a nasty place (from a disease standpoint) to hang out in. Afghanistan has proved to have its own extensive collection of exotic, and often unrecognized (by Western medicine) afflictions.

While most of the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were from combat, many were not. Of the 5,000 or so U.S. troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 19 percent of those fatalities were from non-combat causes. Most of the non-combat deaths were from accidents and disease. One of the major categories of non-combat death is vehicle accidents. In 2007, 20 percent of the non-combat deaths were from vehicle accidents. But in 2008, overall deaths declined by two thirds (from 904 in 2007, to 312 in 2008), but vehicle accident deaths went from 37 to 19.

The U.S. Army expected vehicle accidents to decline even more in 2008, because the number of terrorist incidents went down by 80 percent. Many vehicle accidents were the result of the fast driving tactics troops were encouraged to use to get away from roadside bombs and ambushes. Ask the NCOs, and they will often complain that the sharp reduction in combat has removed the incentive to stay sharp and pay attention. Not a unique situation in a combat zone, and despite the energetic exhortations of the NCOs, too many troops do not stay alert enough to avoid accidents. Ask the troops, and they complain about the heavier traffic. With peace breaking out all over central Iraq, and the economy continuing to boom, more Iraqis have cars. Iraqis drive like they're from Boston, with abandon and indifference.

Meanwhile, military experts around the world are still trying to make sense of how the United States has kept its casualties so low in Iraq and Afghanistan. To put it in simple terms, you were three times more likely to be killed or wounded in Vietnam (or World War II), compared to U.S. troops serving in Iraq. And then there is the mystery of higher non-combat deaths in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, and Iraq, 19 percent of the deaths were from non-combat causes (accidents, disease, for the most part.) During World War II, 25 percent of the dead were non-combat. In Afghanistan, 29 percent of the deaths were non-combat, although that is rapidly changing as combat deaths increase.  Afghanistan does have a greater variety of diseases, and nasty terrain (including the atrocious roads).

What the U.S. did was put in well trained, led, armed and motivated troops and then supported them lavishly. Civilians were hired to do a lot of the menial jobs. Much effort was put into getting to know the local culture, and avoiding civilian casualties. That eventually won over enough Iraqis to undercut support for Islamic radicals (mostly Sunni Arabs angry at no longer being in charge, and minority Shia groups keen on setting up a Shia religious dictatorship).

But while the diseases and safety situation in Iraq is improving, there's still a way to go in Afghanistan. The many diseases, bad roads, hills and mountains will remain for some time to come. Afghanistan will remain a dangerous place, even if no one is shooting at you.



Article Archive

Attrition: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close