Friday, November 23, 2007

Saving Private Ryan

This type of statistic is used a lot by war supporters to argue that the war in Iraq isn't that intense:

The Congressional Research Service, which compiled war casualty statistics from the Revolutionary War to present day conflicts, reported that 4,699 members of the U.S. military died in 1981 and '82 — a period when the U.S. had only limited troop deployments to conflicts in the Mideast. That number of deaths is nearly 900 more than the 3,800 deaths during 2005 and '06, when the U.S. was fully committed to large-scale military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The CRS, which is the public policy research arm of Congress, issued its findings in the June report "American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics.", in re-examining the findings, found that — surprising as it may be — there were more active duty deaths in some years of peacetime than there were in some years of wartime. Military analysts say the current decrease in military casualties, even during a time of war, is due to a campaign by the Armed Forces to reduce accidents and improve medical care on the battlefield.

Of course, our military was probably 50% bigger than our current active duty force back then than now.

Even the anti-war side uses part of this argument to argue the toll is greater by saying that only improved medical technology has kept the war from being the losing blood bath that they know it is.

Or the anti-war side will say that contractors are taking the casualties our troops would take without the contractors. Then again, we don't need as many support troops in the field because of superior communications that allow them to support the forces in Iraq from outside of Iraq.

There are bits of truth to both sides on this. But trying to judge the current war by standards of another era can only take you so far. Times change and we fight a war in our circumstances and not another era's circumstances. If we hadn't reduced accident casualties since 1982, we'd have more deaths now out of the combat zone. So what? And our population is larger now. Should we adjust the burden down because of this? Should we adjust it up because we don't have the expectation of casualties that we had in 1865?

The bottom line is that our forces are fighting with high skill and morale, excellent protective gear, and with outstanding medical care against enemies that quite honestly aren't that good at fighting. This leads to lower casualties. We really are fighting with far fewer deaths and this is caused by a number of factors.

Which leads to good retention of existing troops and no shortage of volunteers for our combat arms in the recruiting arena (we have trouble only with the support function jobs that compete with the civilian sector for potential recruits). Going to Iraq really isn't a death sentence (Well, for the Armed Forces. I won't speak to the State Department on that issue.)

So this is an interesting statistic that tells much about the changing environment since 1982. But that's about it. Winning is not about the absolute level of friendly casualties. Nor does it make the war more or less just or necessary.