14, 2011: After ten years of fighting, the war on terror has caused
51,600 American military casualties (6,200 dead and 45,400 wounded).
This includes a small number of CIA, State Department and other agency
personnel. Over 99 percent are Department of Defense. Not all the
casualties were from combat, with 21 percent of the deaths from
non-combat causes. In World War II that was 25 percent. Iraq fighting
accounted for 71 percent of the deaths and 70 percent of the wounded.
Outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, operations in dozens of other countries
represented 2.5 percent of deaths, but about 71 percent of these were
from non-combat causes.
first 21st century war was quite different than the 20th century
conflicts. For one thing, far fewer Americans are being killed or
wounded in combat. And fewer and fewer of those who are wounded die.
It’s a continuing trend. Last year, eight percent of the wounded died,
compared to eleven percent in 2009. There are several reasons for more
troops surviving battle wounds (and injuries from accidents). An obvious
cause is 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 soldier's mobility, and
increases casualties a bit (and saves some enemy lives as well.)
major factor is medical care, which has gotten much better, quicker and
faster. 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 possessed. Movement of
casualties to an operating room is much faster now, partly because of
better transportation, but also because of more efficient methods, and
operating rooms that are placed closer to the battlefield.
major factor is the change in what caused casualties. Explosions (like
roadside bombs) are less likely to cause fatal wounds. For example,
currently 12.9 percent of bullet wounds are fatal, compared to 7.3
percent for bombs and 3.5 percent for RPGs (and grenades in general).
The enemy in Afghanistan prefers to use roadside bombs, because U.S.
troops are much superior in a gun battle. All this contributed to the
changing the ratio of wounded-to-killed, that was 6-to-1 in Vietnam, to
Iraq and Afghanistan, there has also been a dramatic reduction in
combat deaths compared to Vietnam, and previous 20th century wars. The
death rate (adjusting for the number of troops involved) in Iraq was a
third of what it was in Vietnam. It's even lower in Afghanistan. There
was such a massive reduction in combat deaths that the percentage of
deaths that were from non-combat causes actually went up. For example,
there were 47,359 (81.4 percent) combat deaths in Vietnam, and 10,797
(18.6 percent) from non-combat causes. In Iraq it is 80 percent and 20
percent. In Afghanistan it is 70 percent and 30 percent. The ratio of
dead to wounded is also different in Iraq (1 dead for 7.2 wounded)
compared to Afghanistan (1 dead for 8.1 wounded)
are also differences in the types of casualties. For example, in
Vietnam, bullets caused 38 percent of the deaths. In Iraq, it was only
19 percent, and 27 percent in Afghanistan. The Iraqis are notoriously
bad shots, even though the urban battle space in Iraq was very similar
to Vietnam. There is more of a tradition of marksmanship in Afghanistan,
despite (or probably because of) the frequently longer distances
involved. The superior body armor has made life much harder for enemy
marksmen, as chest shots are now frequently useless and fatal head shots
are very difficult.
Vietnam, 15.7 percent of U.S. combat deaths were caused by IEDs
(Improvised Explosive Devices), while in Iraq and Afghanistan it peaked
at about 60 percent, and then declined. Casualties were avoided, or made
less severe with the development of special armored vehicles (MRAPs)
that reduced the impact of the explosives. The roadside bomb is a much
less effective weapon, a loser's weapon, because it kills more civilians
than enemy troops and played a major role in turning the locals against
the Iraqi terrorists and Afghan Taliban.
related deaths (from crashes) were 14.6 percent of the combat
fatalities in Vietnam, while it was only a few percent in Iraq and
Afghanistan. The current helicopters were built with Vietnam experience
in mind, and are more resistant to damage and safer to crash land in.
Ground vehicle related deaths were two percent in Vietnam, but more than
double that in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the ground vehicle deaths
were non-combat related. That's because from World War II to the
present, the U.S. armed forces put huge numbers of trucks and other
vehicles on roads (often poorly maintained, or shot up), at all hours,
in all weather and with drivers fighting fatigue. There being a war on,
the vehicles often proceeded at unsafe speeds.
made the experience so different today, versus past wars? It was a
combination of things. The most important difference is that the troops
in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting smarter. While the Vietnam era
troops were representative of the general population, the post-Vietnam
era army is all-volunteer and highly selective. The troops are smarter,
healthier and better educated than the general population. During the
last three decades, 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 teams (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 death rate.
weapons and equipment have made U.S. troops less vulnerable to attack.
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 the better trained
American troops were able to cope with this in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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 also better radios, better uniforms, even better field rations. It
all made a difference.
there was the Internet, which enabled the troops to 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 had an impact as well. 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. Research has
also shown that heavy use of video games trains the user to make
decisions faster. That's a lifesaver in combat.
and Trackers took a lot of the fog out of war. For nearly a century,
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 hand
held 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 enabled troops in combat to be more alert and effective.
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 night's sleep can be a life-saver for
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
enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan was not as effective as the Vietnamese
were. The Taliban are more effective than the Iraqis, but not by much.
All this is 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, and casualties, among U.S. troops. The
irregular (Viet Cong) troops in South Vietnam, were 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 or Afghan
warrior. 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.
The Afghans have a more fearsome reputation, but in practice they are no
match for professional infantry. And conventional wisdom to the
contrary, they have been beaten many times in the past. They are
blessed, after a fashion, to live in the place that is not worth
conquering. So whoever defeats them, soon leaves.
there is the data advantage. The military (especially the army, which
has collected, since Vietnam, massive amounts of information on how each
soldier died) has detailed records of soldier and marine casualties.
The army, in particular, collects and analyzes this data, and then
passes on to the troops new tactics and techniques derived from this
analysis. The army restricts access to the data, as it can provide the
enemy with useful information on how effective they are. Some basic data
is made public, but the details will be a locked up for decade or more.
Studying this data is a full time job for many people in the military,
and there is a constant stream of suggestions resulting from this
analysis, and those suggestions often turn into yet another small
decline in combat deaths.