Over a decade ago it became obvious that 21st century warfare was different. By 2011 the war on terror had caused 51,600 American military casualties comprising 6,200 dead and 45,400 wounded. This included a small number of CIA, State Department, and other agency personnel. Over 99 percent were military personnel working for the 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. The fighting in Iraq 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.
The first 21st century war was quite different from 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 (American forces are still in combat in some areas, but far less than in a war), 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 downside 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.)
Another 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.
Another major factor is the change in what caused casualties. Explosions, especially from roadside bombs, were less likely to cause fatal wounds. For example, 12.9 percent of bullet wounds were fatal, compared to 7.3 percent for bombs and 3.5 percent for RPGs and grenades in general. The enemy in Afghanistan preferred to use roadside bombs, because U.S. troops were much more effective in a gun battle as they were taught effective combat maneuvers and practiced those as part of their training. All this contributed to the changing the ratio of wounded-to-killed, that was 6-to-1 in 1970s Vietnam, to 10-1 in 2011.
In 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 smaller number of troops involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, revealed 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 combat deaths in Vietnam, which represented 81.4 percent of the military deaths in Vietnam. The remaining 10,797 deaths were from non-combat causes and comprised 18.6 percent of all deaths. In Iraq it is 80 percent and 20 percent. In Afghanistan it was 70 percent and 30 percent. The ratio of dead to wounded is also different in Iraq, where for each dead soldier there were 7.2 wounded. In Afghanistan it was 1 dead soldier for 8.1 wounded
There 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 were notoriously inaccurate riflemen, 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 protective vests, often called body armor, worn by Americans troops have made it more difficult for enemy marksmen, as chest shots are now frequently useless and fatal head shots are very difficult. The new helmet worn by American troops proved capable of stopping a rifle bullet, something combat helmets had been unable to do during a century of use. The helmets were originally designed to minimize injuries from high-speed metal or non-metal fragments created by exploding artillery shells, hand grenades or explosions in general.
In Vietnam, 15.7 percent of American combat deaths were caused by IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, while in Iraq and Afghanistan IED deaths were initially 60 percent, and then declined. Casualties were avoided or made less severe with the development of MRAP armored trucks. Heavy use of these vehicles reduced the impact of the explosives. The roadside bomb was a much less effective weapon, a loser's weapon, because it killed more civilians than enemy troops riding in their MRAPs and other armored vehicles. This played a major role in turning local civilians against the Iraqi terrorists and Afghan Taliban.
Aircraft 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.
What made the experience so different in the 21st century, versus 20th century 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 was all-volunteer and highly selective. The troops were smarter, healthier, and better educated than the general population. In the 1970s the United States eliminated peacetime conscription and all recruits after that were volunteers. During the first three decades of all-volunteer soldiers, new attitudes developed throughout the army, which always got most of the conscripts The army, so to speak, became more like the marines, which were 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.
This innovation has led to better training, tactics, and leadership. Smarter troops means smarter and more capable leaders, from the junior sergeants leading fire terms of five soldiers all the way up to the generals running the whole show. Smarter troops lead 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.
Better weapons and equipment have made U.S. troops less vulnerable to attack. GPS guided weapons made the biggest difference. There were now GPS guided bombs, shells, and rockets. This enabled troops to hit a target with the first shot and be closer to the explosion and better able to move right in after the bomb or artillery shells explode 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.
And 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.
Then there was the Internet, which enabled the troops to get in touch with each other. This made a big difference. Not just for the combat troops, but also for the NCOs and officers. Each community had different problems and solutions. With the Internet, they could easily discuss problems, and quickly share successful 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.
Computers 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. There have been three decades of troops who grew up with PCs and video games. 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 it possible to do things with information, especially about the enemy, that was not possible before. A lot of troops instinctively 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.
UAVs and Trackers took a lot of uncertainty out of combat. 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. Early in the 21st century the observer overhead was replaced by robots. UAVs, especially the handheld UAVs ones every infantry company has, 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 their 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.
Living conditions enabled troops in combat to be more alert and effective. Some civilians thought air-conditioned sleeping quarters for combat troops, and lots of other amenities in base camps, was simply indulgent. It is anything but. Getting a good night's sleep can be a lifesaver for combat soldiers, and AC makes that possible. Showers, internet links to home and good food do wonders for morale, especially for soldiers 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 previous war.
The 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 due to cultural factors, partly because in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were sending trained soldiers south. The North Vietnamese also had commandos called sappers, who, while small in number, caused a lot of anxiety, and casualties, among U.S. troops. The irregular Viet Cong fighters 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 a place that was not worth conquering. So, whoever defeated them, soon left.
Finally, there is the data advantage. The military, especially the army, had collected, since Vietnam, massive amounts of information on how each soldier died. There were detailed records of soldier and marine casualties. The army, in particular, collected and analyzed this data, and then passed on to the troops new tactics and techniques derived from this analysis. The army restricted access to the data, as it could provide the enemy with useful information on how effective they were. Some basic data was made public, but the details were locked up for over a decade. Studying this data was a full time job for many people in the military, and there was a constant stream of suggestions resulting from this analysis, and those suggestions often turned into yet another small decline in combat deaths.