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The Vietnam Comparison -- A Closer Look At The Numbers:
I am not exactly comforted by Jim's comparison of the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq and the number of U.S. deaths at the height of the Vietnam War. While the casualty rate in Vietnam is considerably higher than the rate in Iraq, Jim's comparison led me to realize that the differences are smaller than I would have thought.

  In 2004, the U.S. lost about 75 troops per month in Iraq out of a total force of about 130,000. When comparing this to Vietnam, you need to specify the year of the comparison; the scope of U.S. involvement grew gradually over a period of years. In 1966, the U.S. lost about 500 soldiers per month out of a total force that averaged about 300,000 troops; in 1967, the rate increased to about 1,000 troops per month out of a total force of about 400,000. By 1968-69, the war's peak, the U.S. averaged about 1,500 lives lost per month out of a total force of about 500,000. [All numbers rounded off. Iraq casualty stats are here; Vietnam stats here. Number of troops in Iraq are here, number in Vietnam are here.]

  Jim is quite right that the total number of U.S. deaths in Iraq so far is about the same as the total for a bad month near the peak of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But I think a more complete picture would be that the scale of U.S. involvement in Iraq is about 25-40% of the scale of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the '66-'69 period, and that the chance that a U.S. soldier in Iraq will get killed is about 25% of the chance that a U.S. solider in Vietnam in '66-'69 would get killed.

  Obviously these comparisons are extremely crude. I grabbed my numbers from a few websites I found via Google, and eyeballed some of the numbers from charts. More importantly, the comparison sheds no light on how the two wars compare more broadly, or whether the decision to invade Iraq was right or wrong. But if we look only at the number of troops and casualty rate, the numbers are less far off than I would have thought.

  I have enabled comments. Remember the new comment rule, however: civil and respectful comments only. If you can't say it nicely, don't say it here.

  UPDATE: My apologies for the technical difficulties; we've been having server troubles today and the comments haven't been working. If you can't view or make a comment, try clicking here.

Greedy Clerk (mail):
Frankly, I just don't get what Jim was getting at . . . It seems to be hardly relevant that the number of American deaths in Iraq is just a fraction of the number of soldiers killed in Vietnam. I think we can all agree that had the American people known that (a) after President Bush declared "major combat operations over" in Iraq, more than one-thousand American troops had died; and that (b) there is no doubt that the main premise upon which this war was based, i.e. Saddam's WMD, was not truthful and appears to have been based on, at best, negligent readings of U.S. intelligence, the American people would not have been so supportive of the War back in early 2003.

In any event, I find conservatives' resort to Vietnam as some sort of benchmark of military success to be highly ironic, to put it nicely.

And, moreover, as several liberal blogs have pointed out, we "only" lost about 3000 people on September 11 --- the day that changed everything. Should we now reevaluate September 11, by pointing out that that would only have been ONE bad day in World War I? Or, perhaps more relevant, should we reevaluate September 11 by pointing out that about 80,000 people (the large majority of which I believe were innocent civilians) died in one day in Hiroshima? The questions are rhetorical of course (and FWIW, I think that Hiroshima, and even Nagasaki, were unfortunately justifiable actions by the United States).
12.27.2004 5:33pm
David Innes (mail) (www):
…and compared to an average month during the American Civil War the numbers in both Iraq and Viet Nam are peanuts. Nah, I won’t go there. Thanks for putting the numbers in perspective, Orin.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere I supported overthrowing Saddam before the first Bush administration, back when the current Bush's supporters were still ardently supporting Saddam. Despite considerable misgivings and much evidence about the current administration’s timing and competency I grudging endorsed the current effort, hoping and praying the effort would pay off.

I supported the effort despite official estimates that the casualty rate among U.S. forces might be as high as 10% during the initial invasion. Casualties wasn’t nearly so bad, for which I’m thankful.

I believe what motivates the likes of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Jim Lindgren to dismiss our current rate of casualties is a mechanical/managerial perception that since we went in prepared to lose 10% anything less — including our current casualty rate — is gravy.

Such an attitude would explain Bush’s otherwise inexplicable “bring it on” remark, Rumsfield’s casual disregard for better armor, and Lindgren’s belief that if more Americans died in Viet Nam than are dying in Iraq then we’re doing great.

I might add that if this sort of attitude back home weren’t so prevalent both before, during, and now after the initial combat Iraq might be a significantly different place today.

1) Well armored, well supported, and well-reinforced soldiers are better able to overtake *and secure* their objectives.

2) Well armored, well supported, and well-reinforced soldiers aren’t as easily targeted by insurgents and, thus, are less likely to become paranoid, isolated, panicky, and, um, contingent in Articles of War situations. Thus they’re less likely to, um, alienate they people they’re trying to liberate. And thus they’re more likely to seem like a positive alternative to the previous regime.

3) A better supported, better defended occupying force is, by definition, not an easy target for casual insurgency carried out by, or at least passively abetted by, an alienated subject population.

4) Combining parts 1, 2, part 3 becomes more theoretical as potential insurgents would tend to have fewer opportunities and would be less able to take advantage of a sympathetic populace.

Thus the “hey we ain’t losin’ nearly as many guys as we figgered’ we would so we’re doin’ great” attitude promoted by Mr. Lundgren is counterproductive in strategic terms as well as moral, ethical, and human-cost terms.

David Innes
12.27.2004 5:33pm
Teresa (mail) (www):
What I take from Jim's posting of numbers is sheer frustration. The media has glommed onto the death toll to the exclusion of just about everything else in the GWOT. Think about all the headlines you have seen - has there been even ONE - just a SINGLE headline in a major newspaper saying something like "Major Battle Won in Fallujah" or "Marines and Army Successfully Rout Insurgents" (yes I'll even give them the silly word Insurgent over the word Terrorist).

No - what we continually see - is X number of Soldiers Die in Attack on Fallujah or something similar. ALL - every single news story by a mainstream outlet starts with the number of dead Americans - and maybe just maybe there is a mention of a small accomplishment... like gaining control of a city... that might be mentioned farther down.

I have had similar thoughts myself since we went into Afghanistan. Whenever I see these headlines - and as much as I hurt for the families who have lost soldiers in this fight - I find my thinking running along the lines of... I could just see these people reporting on D-Day... Imagine the hugely bad numbers they could've published.

So, as I say, I think this is more of a reaction to the type of MSM reporting we are getting about the war, rather than trying to say we shouldn't be concerned because enough people haven't died yet. The focus on the number dead, rather than their accomplishment, completely strips the meaning from the ultimate sacrifice of our soldiers.
12.27.2004 7:20pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Here are two factoids worth considering in the context of Prof. Kerr's post:

(1) A Washington Post op-ed had something to remember in Iraq-to-Vietnam comparisons:

"To better understand the difficulty of the fighting in Iraq, consider not just the current body count but the combat intensity of previous wars. During World War II, the United States lost an average of 300 military personnel per day. The daily figure in Vietnam was about 15. Compared with two per day so far in Iraq, the daily grinds of those earlier conflicts were worse than what our forces are currently experiencing.

"On the other hand, improved body armor, field medical procedures and medevac capabilities are allowing wounded soldiers to survive injuries that would have killed them in earlier wars. In World War II there were 1.7 wounded for every fatality, and 2.6 in Vietnam; in Iraq the ratio of wounded to killed is 7.6. This means that if our wounded today had the same chances of survival as their fathers did in Vietnam, we would probably now have more than 3,500 deaths in the Iraq war.

"Moreover, we fought those wars with much larger militaries than we currently field. The United States had 12 million active-duty personnel at the end of World War II and 3.5 million at the height of the Vietnam War, compared with just 1.4 million today. Adjusted for the size of the armed forces, the average daily number of killed and wounded was 4.8 times as many in World War II than in Iraq, but it was only 0.25 times greater in Vietnam — or one-fourth more."

We've all seen reports on the horrific nature of many wounds suffered in Iraq, so I won't risk "mere" emotional appeal in enumerating them.

(2) Also, recall this item from Editor &Publisher:

"CBS’s '60 Minutes' revealed that it had received a letter from the Pentagon declaring: 'More than 15,000 troops with so-called "non-battle" injuries and diseases have been evacuated from Iraq.'

"These include serious injuries that arise from accidents (vehicular and otherwise), trauma, and severe psychiatric problems. The number is in line with estimates offered earlier this year by United Press International, based on arrivals at the main treatment center in Landstuhl, Germany.

"Some of these Landstuhl cases are not serious but according to '60 Minutes' only 20 percent of the evacuees return to their units in Iraq.

"None of the non-hostile injuries are included in the casualty count, 'leaving the true human cost of the war something of a mystery,' '60 Minutes' states.

"The total number of casualties is about 25,000, plus the more than 1,200 killed. Since about 300,000 men and women have served in Iraq, it makes for a casualty rate of about 9%."

This is plainly bogus; in our previous wars, we've counted nonbattle casualties (including disease) in the total. More than half the 600,000 dead in the Civil War, if I recall aright, died of disease.

Of course, to many Volokh readers, "60 Minutes" = "CBS" = "liberal propaganda"; perhaps one such reader will also provide some documented refutation as well.

—-I'm unfamiliar with the linking method for these comments; links to the above-quoted items are here (I hope).
12.27.2004 7:46pm
Minor Myers (mail):
In comparing Iraq and Vietnam, deaths might not be the right metric. More relevant, argues Atul Gawande in a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, are casualties.

The mortality rate in Iraq and Afghanistan is low compared to other American conflicts. Gawande argues that this is due in large part not to diminished danger on the battlefield but to superior medical care. One trenchant quotation:

Though firepower has increased, lethality has decreased. In World War II, 30 percent of the Americans injured in combat died. In Vietnam, the proportion dropped to 24 percent. In the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 10 percent of those injured have died. At least as many U.S. soldiers have been injured in combat in this war as in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or the first five years of the Vietnam conflict, from 1961 through 1965 (see table). This can no longer be described as a small or contained conflict. But a far larger proportion of soldiers are surviving their injuries.

Thus, while the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is low compared to historical levels -- surely a heartening statistic -- the credit accrues chiefly to military medical professionals. In terms of casualties, the numbers suggest deeper engagement, more substantial than a bad month in Vietnam.
12.27.2004 7:50pm
Guest:
I realize that comparing casualty rates isn't necessarily telling, and I realize that Prof. Lindgren's initial post might have been more a comment on media coverage than military reality, but still I think it's important to get the math right. Using Prof. Kerr's numbers,

Iraq 2004: 75/130,000 = 0.06%
Vietnam 1966: 500/300,000 = 0.17%
Vietnam 1967: 1000/400,000 = 0.25%
Vietnam 1968-69: 1500/500,000 = 0.30%

So the math still works out to about 3, 4, or 5-times higher casualty rates in Vietnam, rather than about the same (as the post implies).
12.27.2004 7:56pm
OrinKerr:
Guest,

I didn't suggest that the casualty rate in Iraq was about the same as Vietnam. Rather, I made the same point that you make: as I put it, "the chance that a U.S. soldier in Iraq will get killed is about 25% of the chance that a U.S. solider in Vietnam in '66-'69 would get killed." Or, as you put it, "the math . . . works out to about 3, 4, or 5-times higher casualty rates in Vietnam."
12.27.2004 8:16pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
Teresa, I assume this comment was hyperbole: "ALL - every single news story by a mainstream outlet starts with the number of dead Americans - and maybe just maybe there is a mention of a small accomplishment... like gaining control of a city... that might be mentioned farther down." The comment otherwise is indefensible, because I have followed the war in both the LATimes and the NYTimes and hardly any stories start with the number of dead Americans. Perhaps, your views of the "MSM" is not so much based on what you read in the "MSM" as what you hear in the conservative-blogosphere's "echo-chamber." (See, e.g., Glenn Reynolds --- This blog (VC) I believe is uniquely diverse in its points of view.)

Moreover, some may find it offensive that the so-called main-stream media hardly ever reports on the number of Iraqi dead (putting aside for the moment the, in my opinion, absurd position of the Pentagon not to even keep track of that number). Isn't human life, according to President Bush's purportedly Christian faith, precious no matter what nationality a person is. (I, however, am too tribal to be able to care as much about Iraqi dead than American dead, but that is not something I am proud of.)

If Mr. Lindgren were in fact meaning to criticize the so-called mainstream media (which I am not sure if that was his intention considering that he was responding to a lone protester in Madison, WI, that doesn't seem to have gotten any significant media attention) then I, again, have no idea what he is getting at. Should the media report on every past wars' casualties when it reports on American casualties in Iraq? The point is that 1300 dead Americans is a high cost, especially when one considers that the war right now looks like it has been a complete failure (plenty of conservatives would agree, e.g. George Will). Moreover, as I posted above, had the American people knew of this cost --- which you may not believe is high, but I do --- they probably would not have supported this war. This is especially true when one remembers (as the supposedly liberal media seems to never mention) that the primary justification for the war turned out to be not true, and the result of, at best, negligent (and results-oriented) interpretations of available intelligence.

Frankly, I believe the so-called mainstream media has been way too easy on Bush in this war. All we heard prior to it from the administration was "WMD, mushroom clouds, WMD, anthrax, WMD, aluminum cylinders, WMD, etc." And guess what? There weren't any. You think the media would mention that every once in a while. You think the question would have been asked of Bush at a press-conference. You would think the question would have been asked at the debates. But it wasn't; was it? If this is a liberal media, I cannot imagine what a conservative media would look like.
12.27.2004 10:32pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
What would be particularly interesting is if anyone had the numbers for the percent chance of dying from things like car accidents, surgery, etc. to put this in some context.

Because really, does a .06% chance of dying seem very deadly?

After all, a 1% chance of being killed by a planet-killing asteroid hit is 16 times more likely to kill a soldier in Iraq than combat is (excepting that right now the asteroid isn't supposed to have a 1-in-42 chance of killing us all any more, I believe).

Incidentally, was anyone else struck by how unlikely a soldier was to get killed in Vietnam? I had always imagined something like 10% - 30% fatality rate, given how bloody imagry of that conflict is. Somehow a .30% fatality rate just doesn't seem to live up to the hype. Heck, taking Vioxx is several times more deadly, if I recall the statistics correctly (and you're in the risk group).
12.27.2004 10:48pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
Greedy Clerk,

And how, precisely, would you generate meaningful numbers on the number of Iraqi dead?
12.27.2004 10:51pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
David,

Bush's "Bring it on" remark is the only sensible response. You say that to your enemies when you're winning, you say it when you have your back to the wall. The only time you don't tell your enemy, "bring it on" is when you're suing for peace and offering terms of surrender that you hope they'll accept.

Not showing weakness to an enemy, or weakness in front of your own troops, is just one of the elementary rules of warfare.

When animals, people or otherwise, fight each other, it is frequently not the strongest but rather the most aggresive who wins. Great imbalances of force can change this (e.g. bows versus guns), but it would not be sensible to chose to appear weak.
12.27.2004 10:57pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Bush's "bring it on" comment is far from the stupidest thing he's said, but Chris Lansdown forgets another context when one doesn't say "bring it on" besides surrender: namely, when you're trying to persuade the other side to end hostilities, not because you're weak, but because you're trying to achieve a peaceful solution. The "elementary rules of warfare" only get you so far, because war is a means to an end.

Anyway, I'm starting to wonder what the purpose of the Iraq/Vietnam comparison is. Early commenters have effectively demolished the Nam-was-worse-so-quit-yer-cryin' argument. If going to war in Iraq was the right solution to our problems, then the casualties incurred are probably worth it, though they could have been greatly diminished by a government that bothered to plan in advance. On the other hand, if Iraq was a horrible, meaningless distraction from the mission of eliminating Osama-style terror from the face of the earth, then one death would be one too many.

(I am not impressed by the liberating-the-Iraqis-from-Saddam argument. If and when the Iraqis had been ready to rid themselves of Saddam, he would have been out of there. Liberation from above is a dubious concept.)
12.28.2004 12:06am
cw (mail):
1300 is way too many if the war is bad idea, if it is unlikely from the begining to achive it's aims. Or, if there were alternatives to the war that had an relativly equal chance fo achiving the same aims. Or if the planning and excecution were botched, especially if they were botched out of hubris or bad thinking.

Human lives are precious. Think how you would feel if your son or daughter were killed. The president has a sacred responsibility to take every precaution possible with the lives entrusted to him, and I do not believe that he has come anywhere close to meeting his responsibility. If he had more imagination, I think his prefromance these past three years would weigh pretty heavily on him.
12.28.2004 2:46am
David Innes (mail) (www):
Anderson said:
"Anyway, I'm starting to wonder what the purpose of the Iraq/Vietnam comparison is. Early commenters have effectively demolished the Nam-was-worse-so-quit-yer-cryin' argument. If going to war in Iraq was the right solution to our problems, then the casualties incurred are probably worth it, though they could have been greatly diminished by a government that bothered to plan in advance. On the other hand, if Iraq was a horrible, meaningless distraction from the mission of eliminating Osama-style terror from the face of the earth, then one death would be one too many."

I say:
That's about right, Anderson. If the war was the right solution then even higher rates of casualties would be acceptable. If it was the wrong thing (it *certainly* was the wrong time) then every life lost is meaningless. I would add that even if it's the right thing there's no excuse for profligately wasting human life.

I repeat my assertion that a number of our problems in Iraq derive from an MBA/administrative perspective, echoed in Jim Lindgren's post, that our casualty "burn rate" is way below expectations so providing additional armor, logistics, and security isn't particularly urgent.

And as I stated previously, the consequences have strategic implications. One of Scott Adams's Dilbert Principles is that when your task is unachievable, upper management is indifferent, and you can't get out, you're free to do whatever you want. Sometimes this leads to heroic acts. More often it leads to extreme contingencies such as shooting wounded prisoners to make sure they're really incapacitated. And act, incidentally, which, under the circumstances where troops on the ground feel unnecessarily expendible, may necessarily also be heroic in the most horrifically Dilbert-esqe sense of the word. (A sense, incidentally, that Chris Landsdown and others endorsed a week or so ago and a sense I'm contending would be unnecessary if American casualties were taken more seriously by this war's proponents.)

David Innes
12.28.2004 3:25am
submandave (mail) (www):
Greedy Clerk, I believe, like many, your personal political biases have influenced your perception of the issue at hand as much or more than those in the "conservative-blogosphere's 'echo-chamber' " you decry. While you bemoan that the MSM "hardly ever reports on the number of Iraqi dead" you seem to have missed all the reports of bombings, kidnappings, assasinations and beheadings I've seen. Or perhaps you only are looking for reports of Iraqi dead that Coalition forces are accused of, not civilians killed by the "insurgents." Again, you must have missed the nearly round-the-clock reporting on the 3am "wedding" near the Syrian border as well. And even if Teresa was exercising her hyperbole license by using the word "all," you still fail to offer a meaningful rebuttal of her fundamental premise, that even in reporting major gains and accomplishments that most (if not all) MSM outlets ensure the focus of the reporting is well trained on those elements that reflect negatively on the effort and those engaged in it.

I am unreservedly bullish on the Iraqi campaign and believe it fundamental to the overal strategy in the GWOT. There are many directions this war may take on many fronts. Will we be required to respond to nuclear weapons threats from Iran? Will fundamentalists succeed in overthrowing the house of Saud? While I certainly hope further large scale military action will not be required, we have to be ready and any potential action in the theater would have been unreasonably compromised by the presence of an actively hostile Iraq on our flank. The Iraqi campaign was the right thing at the right time in the right place. As long as Saddam was in power in Iraq he had a controlling effect over any action or option we might exercise in the region.
12.28.2004 10:36am
Pat Curley (mail) (www):
The raw numbers of casualties don't tell us much. How many died in the Normandy invasion? Estimates range from 2500 to 6000. Does that number tell us whether it was worth it or not? Nope, because what we really need to know is the other side of the ledger; what was accomplished? And in Iraq, that cannot be judged as yet.
12.28.2004 10:51am
Cecil Turner (mail):
"More importantly, the comparison sheds no light on how the two wars compare more broadly, or whether the decision to invade Iraq was right or wrong. But if we look only at the number of troops and casualty rate, the numbers are less far off than I would have thought."

I'm not sure what the comparison to Vietnam is supposed to be an argument for in the first place. The logical reason to draw parallels to Vietnam would seem to be an attempt to portray Iraq as a "quagmire" . . . but that's hardly persuasive unless the strategic objectives were met with similar success. If we'd taken Hanoi and were suffering similar casualty counts while organizing elections in North Vietnam, the comparison would be apropos. But since we didn't . . .

Secondly, it's worth pointing out the casualty rate in Vietnam was quite low in comparison with other wars. Contrast with Korea which had nearly the same number of deaths, or WWII and the Civil War which were nearly an order of magnitude more deadly, each in a much shorter period of time. A casualty rate that's less than a quarter of a previous war remarkable for its own low rate suggests this one is relatively bloodless.

Finally, it's hard to see why a "relative risk" measurement was chosen. The more valid measurement on the war's effect on American society would seem to be the risk of creating widows/bereaved parents among the greater US population. And by that metric, this one is less than 1/40th as bloody as Vietnam.
12.28.2004 11:53am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Quoth submandave:
As long as Saddam was in power in Iraq he had a controlling effect over any action or option we might exercise in the region.
This is easier to say than to understand. We'd kicked Saddam's butt in the Gulf War, and he had no good reason to expect we couldn't do it again. I would be curious as to what kind of "action or option" we would have had to suffer Saddam's "control" over.

Now, of course, "Saddam" exercises *massive* control over our options, because we are emmerdé (if I recall my French) in Iraq, and any hopes we might have had for military force elsewhere have been drastically curtailed. All this gameboard daydreaming about "is Iran next?", etc., misses the fundamental point that our Army is busy right now, and we're not getting a new one without the draft. Which, of course, Our Fearless Leader has vowed not to do.
12.28.2004 12:03pm
jon (mail):
The number of casualties or deaths isn't nearly as relevant as the question of whether or not the goals are being achieved. It's callous and offensive to think of human lives in a cost/benefit equation, but that's what's needed in this case.

Of course, the goal must be defined. If the goal was the creation of a free republic with a secular government and the ability for citizens to freely express and act upon their views on life, culture, politics, and religion, then I can't see much progress and some actual regression. If the goal is for the Iraqis to be in charge of their own government, there's been mixed progress. If the goal is to topple Saddam, then "America, F*** Yeah!" (I'm using the radio friendly edit, which may infringe on the "civil" posting rules, but I apologize in advance) should be our new national anthem.
12.28.2004 12:21pm
Cecil Turner (mail):
"All this gameboard daydreaming about "is Iran next?", etc., misses the fundamental point that our Army is busy right now, and we're not getting a new one without the draft. Which, of course, Our Fearless Leader has vowed not to do."

Anderson,

We have less than 10% of our armed forces tied up in Iraq (admittedly more of the Army, and especially the Guard). The difficulty lies in arranging a rotation schedule that doesn't put an unsustainable optempo strain on our units. But that's partly an artificial constraint (trying to maintain a modified peacetime personnel tempo), and partly due to having large portions of our military deployed in strategically unimportant locations in Europe and the Far East.

Further, the "Army is busy right now" in precisely the same place it'd have to go in order to attack Iran. And since a glance at a Mideast map makes it clear that Iraq is a necessary precursor to an Iranian invasion, the argument that Iraq has made further military operations in the theater (i.e., Iran) impossible is exactly 180 degrees from reality.

The draft argument is also a non-sequitur. In the first place, we could significantly increase the size of the armed forces simply by increasing recruiting (and providing for a greater "authorized end strength"). In the second, starting a draft at this point would actually reduce troops available in the near term. In any event, there is exactly zero support among military professionals for going back to conscription, as the increase in manpower is more than offset by degradation of efficiency. And most who make the draft argument do so for political effect rather than any desire to increase the effectiveness of the armed forces.
12.28.2004 12:35pm
Sigivald (mail):
Greedy: "Major Combat Operations" does not mean "fighting". And they were over, by all information and intelligence available at the time.

There has, since, been... one operation I might even consider calling "major", that being the conquest of Fallujah. To complain about Bush's deceit because about a year later there was a week-long attack on a city, such attack not being even close to forseeable at the time he said what he said, strikes me as at best not intellectually honest. (And while I cannot speak for anyone else, my level of support would not change one bit, as I was, like President Clinton, pro-regime-change long before 2001, regardless of bad WMD intel that, likewise, pre-dated President Bush.)

(PS. Who made WMDs "the main reason" for invading? The President always mentioned many reasons for invading, in my reading of the speeches he made. Perhaps you're confusing the focus of the UN and the Media (after all, WMD sells more papers than "he funded terrorists" or "he's a real bastard to the people of Iraq". Surely media scaremongering is an undeniable force - if you think it isn't, watch the evening news, no matter what the subject is - and cannot wholly be laid at the President's feet.)

Lastly, while you might find using Vietnam as a symbol of military success (though nobody here was doing that) "ironic", you can do so only if unaware that the military historians are (if not literally, then nearly, in my perousal) unanimous in considering it a military success for the US, pretty much right until the US decided to pull out for political reasons on the homefront. (I mean, people think we lost the Tet Offensive, when nothing could be further from the truth.)
12.28.2004 12:50pm
Tony Dismukes (mail):
Chris Landsown asks "Because really, does a .06% chance of dying seem very deadly?"

Remember, this would represent the chance of dying due to combat action in any single month. Add in the chances of getting seriously wounded, and we're up to .516% chance of becoming a casualty in a given month. Doing the math, that means a soldier who has a 12-month tour in Iraq would have a slightly greater than 6% chance of becoming a casualty (killed or wouunded, probably wounded). Of course, if we count the "non-combat" casualties, the chances would be still higher (about 9% by my calculations). Given that the majority of those non-combat casualties would not have occurred if the soldier involved was deployed at home, it seems fair to count them.

Vietnam was somewhat worse. Going by the figures given in the comments above, A soldier spending all 12 months of 1967 would have about a 7.5% chance of becoming a casualty due to combat action (presuming the stats listed above only count combat casualties). A higher percentage of those casualties would be deaths. I don't know what the figures would be for non-combat casualties.

Frankly, If I knew I had even a 6% chance of being killed or seriously wounded in the next year, I'd be kind of stressed, especially if I saw those same odds applying to everyone I worked with. I'd be even more stressed if I saw my tour of duty being extended.
12.28.2004 1:02pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Phil Carter and Owen West have an article up at Slate on the Iraq-Vietnam casualty comparison.

Cecil Turner claims that only 10% of "our armed forces" are tied up in Iraq. If he means combat troops, I flatly disbelieve that number, barring some reliable citation. The Army requires a lot of noncombat personnel to get soldiers on the ground.

Leaving that caveat aside, it's simply not feasible to empty every base around the world and dump our soldiers into Mideast conflicts. Those bases are there for a reason, right? Nor does the "heavy rotation" argument hold up. Cf. Carter &West:
Military leaders should be mindful of this fact: To send infantrymen on their third rotations to Iraq this spring is akin to assigning a trooper three tours in Vietnam: harsh in 1966 and a total absurdity by 1968.
Exhausted, demoralized troops will not lead to good results ... as we have already seen.

More gameboarding: look, you can invade Iran from Iraq, they're right next to each other on the map! This *utterly* ignores larger realities. We would have to leave a fair number of troops behind to secure our base, and judging by how things are going, that number probably equals about what we've got in Iraq now. (Even in Risk, you have to leave one army behind when you invade!)

And the political issues are dicey at best: how long will other Mideast nations stand by and watch as we knock over the dominos? Whatever international credibility we may retain after Iraq will be *gone* if we invade Iran on no stronger basis than "we don't want them to have nukes." (Pakistan not only has nukes but has been allowing A.Q. Khan to sell nuclear prowess to the highest bidder, and we were right next to Pakistan when we conquered (?) Afghanistan ....)

As long as we didn't shoot our bolt, we had considerable military influence, because every nation in the world knew we could take them out if need be. We've shot our bolt. Oh, and we've taught a valuable lesson: If you don't want the U.S. Marines in your capital, build nuclear weapons ASAP! Iran certainly has absorbed that lesson. If I were the Grand Poobah of Iran, I'd be ordering 24/7 work on building &deploying nukes. Wouldn't you?
12.28.2004 1:03pm
MSD (mail):
http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/STATS/table4c6.html#fn1

If I understand the tables correctly, the typical 20 something year old has a roughly .14% chance of dying before his next birthday. Not sure if that scales to monthly, since I am definately not an actuary, but that would seem to be about .01%

So, in heavily rounded numbers, the typical soldier is about 5 or 6 times more likely to die in Iraq, than a similar person in the US. This is of course VERY rounded and not especially useful in any event, but some one asked, and I was curious. Please, anyone with better math and or actuarial skills correct me if I read this wrong.
12.28.2004 1:10pm
Guest:
Prof. Kerr,

Sorry, I guess I didn't make myself very clear (and/or I misunderstood you). When you said, "But I think a more complete picture would be that the scale of U.S. involvement in Iraq is about 25-40% of the scale of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the '66-'69 period, and that the chance that a U.S. soldier in Iraq will get killed is about 25% of the chance that a U.S. solider in Vietnam in '66-'69 would get killed," I took that to mean "we have about 25% of the troops in Iraq that we had in Vietnam, and their death rate is about 25% of what we had in Vietnam, so there's not really much difference."

My point (which I didn't really explain well above) is that the death rate already accounts for number of troops in the country. Comparing 25% of the troop commitment with 25% of the death rate is like dividing death rate by troop commitment and showing that you get 1 (so they're about the same). But doing that division of (deaths/troops) / troops implies that [deaths / (troops^2)] is the meaningful statistic, rather than [deaths / troops].

I'm certainly open to hearing an explanation of why that might be so, but I can't think of any myself right now.

===

Chris, in response to your question, "Because really, does a .06% chance of dying seem very deadly?":

That's 0.06% per month, which (as you point out) really doesn't seem nearly as deadly as the press makes it out to be. (Nor is the 0.30% monthly rate in Vietnam.)

Unfortunately, over a longer tour of duty, things get more dangerous. If you have a probability p of dying each month and you're there for m months, then overall your probability of dying is [1 - (1-p)^m]. That works out to:

Iraq: 0.06%/month = 0.72%/yr = 1.43%/2yrs = 2.14%/3yrs
Vietnam: 0.30%/month = 3.54%/yr = 6.96%/2yrs = 10.25%/3yrs
12.28.2004 1:16pm
OrinKerr:
Guest,

We are in complete agreement; I think you are just misreading that one sentence. To be clear, when I wrote that "the chance that a U.S. soldier in Iraq will get killed is about 25% of the chance that a U.S. soldier in Vietnam in '66-'69 would get killed," I meant that the chance that *any one soldier* in Iraq would get killed is 25% the chance that *any one soldier* in Vietnam would get killed. Sorry if that meaning wasn't clear the first time.
12.28.2004 1:35pm
Cecil Turner (mail):
"Cecil Turner claims that only 10% of "our armed forces" are tied up in Iraq. If he means combat troops, I flatly disbelieve that number, barring some reliable citation. The Army requires a lot of noncombat personnel to get soldiers on the ground."

The 10% is simply dividing the 140,000 currently in Iraq by the 1.4 million regulars (plus 175,000 activated Guard/Reserves). And of course, the troops deployed to Iraq include plenty of combat support and combat service support personnel, which is the main reason for the disparate percentage (45% of them) being Guard/Reserves--and the heaviest strain is actually on them.

"Leaving that caveat aside, it's simply not feasible to empty every base around the world and dump our soldiers into Mideast conflicts. Those bases are there for a reason, right?"

Most were related to the Cold War, and were kept in place afterward due to inertia and for political reasons. There are still about 100,000 in Europe to deter the Soviets from coming through the Fulda Gap, and another 100,000 in the Far East to deter the North Koreans. Make sense to you?

"More gameboarding: look, you can invade Iran from Iraq, they're right next to each other on the map! This *utterly* ignores larger realities."

I'm not sure where you're going with this, but it's unpersuasive. We certainly possess the military capacity to invade Iran (in real life, not a Risk game). More to the point, there's no way to invade Iran from anyplace other than Iraq. Not that it's necessarily a prudent course of action, but the argument that invading Iraq reduced military options for dealing with Iran is exactly wrong.

"If I were the Grand Poobah of Iran, I'd be ordering 24/7 work on building &deploying nukes. Wouldn't you?"

That makes perfect sense . . . if they're looking for an invasion and regime change. Because from our viewpoint, that'd be the only good reason to proceed with such a plan.
12.28.2004 2:20pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Sigivald omits to recognize that, whatever "reasons" the Bushies listed in their speeches, the reason that appealed to the American people was the threat of WMD's that could be used against the U.S. Hence the Iraq/9-11 pairing that Cheney et al. so shamelessly engaged in. Retroactive spinning won't do; I was in this country during the buildup to war, and this war was NOT sold as a glorious crusade to liberate the suffering Iraqis.
12.28.2004 2:21pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Whatever my cavils with Cecil Turner (and I am relying on writers such as Phil Carter, James Fallows, and Fred Kaplan for my sense that we're spread thin as we can go), I have no doubt that the U.S. could invade Iran if we cared to, and that we could win the ground war---the "major combat hostilities" or whatever---though I suspect with greater effort than the Iraqi cakewalk.

But what then? Has our Iraq experience led anyone to think that we are especially talented at this sort of thing? There are quite a lot more Iranians than there are Iraqis. An invasion would almost certainly unite the Iranian opposition's supporters with the supporters of the clerical rulers; these people have been hating America longer than the Iraqis have.

Quite simply, I can't see any reason to believe that war against Iran would be anything other than a terrible, terrible idea. Our enemies are at least as likely to obtain A-bombs via Pakistan as they might be to acquire them from Iran. And I continue to think that the Iranians are unlikely to export A-bombs to terrorists; their precious bombs are likely to be stockpiled for their own defense, and the one politically acceptable motive for a U.S. nuclear attack would be as retribution for an Iran-backed nuclear attack on the U.S.

Added to which, there's the obvious value to al-Qaeda of yet another U.S. war against an Islamic nation.

We would be much better off taking advantage of the aspects that separate Iran from the Arabic Mideast and trying to woo them into being a defense partner of the U.S., a role they are better suited to than is Pakistan. Whether that's still possible after 4 years of G.W. Bush is debatable; whether it's possible with 4 more years of him is unlikely. But invading countries is *not* creating stability, and we need stability in this region very badly indeed.
12.28.2004 4:12pm
Cecil Turner (mail):
"I am relying on writers such as Phil Carter, James Fallows, and Fred Kaplan for my sense that we're spread thin as we can go"

I'd respectfully submit none of those gents has any military planning experience (AFAICT). We haven't even increased recruiting yet, or detailed all our regulars to WoT duties, let alone called up all the reserves, put the country on a war footing, and changed all enlistments to "the duration plus six months." Again, this is a modified peacetime rotation plan, not a wartime mobilization effort--we have considerable excess capacity, and many options short of conscription.

"Quite simply, I can't see any reason to believe that war against Iran would be anything other than a terrible, terrible idea. Our enemies are at least as likely to obtain A-bombs via Pakistan as they might be to acquire them from Iran."

I completely disagree with the relative risk assessment (especially as long as Musharraf remains on-side). In my opinion, letting the world's most active terror sponsor acquire a nuclear arsenal would be the height of folly. But concur that the goal should be to deter and contain the Mullahs . . . which to be effective requires a credible threat of invasion. And Iraq was the first, essential, step toward that goal.
12.28.2004 4:45pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Mr. Turner writes: "I completely disagree with the relative risk assessment (especially as long as Musharraf remains on-side)."

I would like to know why you think so, particularly given Pakistan's failure to cooperate with us re: A.Q. Khan and the dubious control that Musharraf exercises over his intel establishment. It's a sincere question: I would really be grateful for some reason to feel comfortable about Pakistan, which nurtured the Taliban, sympathized with bin Laden, and has hampered our Qaeda-hunting and nuke-restricting efforts.

Leaving aside that Musharraf's regime is probably a good deal less stable than the Iranian one?
12.28.2004 5:06pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
Sivgald, I have two remarks.

1) You are correct in a legalistic, Clintonesque way that Bush was right that "major combat operations" were over, but everyone at the time understood that speech on the carrier to be a victory speech. I do not believe Bush was somehow lying in that he knew we had not yet won but was trying to say we had. Rather I believe the speech, which in retrospect I think we can all agree was woefully premature, merely reflected the President's complete ignorance of Iraqi culture and his failure to even consider a prolonged insurgency after we deposed the regime (and the insurgency involves groups who did not support the regime).

2) WMD was the primary justification for the war advanced by the Bush administration in the months prior to the war. He did give other justifications (none of which stand the test of scrutiny), but WMD was the primary justification.
12.28.2004 5:11pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
Cecil Turner: "More to the point, there's no way to invade Iran from anyplace other than Iraq."

Perhaps I am missing something, and I don't mean this to be a snarky comment, but couldn't we invade Iran from Pakistan and/or Afghanistan as well? Assuming (which I don't) that invading Iran is a good idea, wouldn't Afghanistan be the logical place to launch from if we weren't involved in Iraq now, as we have a significant military presence there, and could build a more significant presence much quicker?

Again, maybe I'm missing something, but Cecil why do you believe that we could "only" invade Iran from Iraq.
12.28.2004 5:17pm
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):
"No way" is an overstatement, but I don't think you'll find any U.S. military planners who want to ever invade anything from Afghanistan. Indeed, I invite you to find a historical example of a sucessful invasion from Afghanistan. I don't know of any even attempted in the past two-hundred years. It's a nasty place to fight.

It is significantly easier to invade Iran from Iraq than from Afghanistan. Our logisitics costs in mountainous land-locked Afghanistan are three times higher than they are in Iraq, and we simply do not have the roads or the transport for as large a force in Afghanistan. It would be easier to do so from Pakistan, but we would have to get permission from Pakistan (remember Turkey).

I also think people have missed the boat on the Humvee armor problem. On the day the soldier asked the question 784 of the 804 Humvees in his unit were armored. On the next day it was 804 out of 804. Not only that, but there is a policy that armored Humvees are used off-base and unarmored on-base. Furthermore, the Pentagon officer in charge of the armor procurement program claims it was one of the fastest, most successful procurement operations he has ever heard of. Once all the facts were in, I judge what we did to armor Humvees as an unqualified success.

I find this pattern over and over. Folks complain about a problem, ignoring the history of warfare and quite reasonably ignorant of the unavailable facts on the ground. But by the time those facts have become available, the news cycle has moved on. I'd like to see more digging for the facts and presentation of the hisory earlier in the process.

Robert E. Lee said that the reason the South lost the Civil War was because all the best generals were writing for the papers. Keep more than a grain of salt handy when the papers complain about how bad things are going. Not that it's a liberal bias, mind you, but an apparently articles about how wonderful the procurement process is going do little to excite scoop lust in any reasonably hot-blooded reporter eager to print The News. "150,000 American Soldiers Still Living in Iraq" doesn't have much punch, eh?

Yours,
Wince
12.28.2004 6:41pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Robert E. Lee said that the reason the South lost the Civil War was because all the best generals were writing for the papers.

Lee was incorrect.

Wince is probably right about an invasion from Afghanistan, but the problems with any invasion are not small. See James Fallows's article "Will Iran Be Next?", wherein such worthies as Reuel Marc Gerecht, Ken Pollack, and David Kay assess and reject an invasion of Iran as too risky. Also good on why airstrikes may not work (basically, the Iranians expect them and have scattered/hidden their facilities accordingly).

More to the point, invading country after country simply is not going to work for us in the long run. The words are hubris and nemesis.
12.28.2004 6:51pm
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):
Anderson is right about invading Iran. Look at all the mountains! One of the reasons we picked off Saddam was that he was low-hanging, but strategically located fruit. In the context of the global war on Terror, invading Iraq was, is and will remain excellent strategy. My opinion has always been that WMD and the UN resolutions were merely the legal causus belli, just like we got Al Capone on tax evasion, but there were about twenty good reasons to overthrow Saddam.

I'm very happy with the Iraqi War. I believe it has been a notable success, and I have seen nothing which would make me change my mind.
12.28.2004 7:10pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
"I'm very happy with the Iraqi War. I believe it has been a notable success, and I have seen nothing which would make me change my mind."

Well, I can't respond to that. Needless to say, I don't know which war you have been following. A "notable success"? Please. History will judge that, and I honestly hope I am wrong on this one, but I don't think history is going to look back on this as anything less than a complete fiasco. Our world capital has been wasted, we've inspired a new generation of jihadists given the pictures from Fallujah and Abu Ghraib---I certainly agree that we have every right to ignore the rest of the world, but when we do so, it should be for a good reason. Here, there wasn't one:

1. No WMDs.
2. No link, at all, to September 11.
3. No meaningful link to Al Qaeda.
4. Humanitarian aspect --- laughable. While liberating people from dictatorships is a good collateral effect of war, it has never been a goal of US foreign policy, and never could be because we would be occupying the entire middle east (save Israel) and most of the Asian and African continents. In any event, there are worse dictators in this world than Saddam. Some are our allies (which is unfortunately necessary, but true nonetheless).
12.28.2004 7:36pm
Cecil Turner (mail):
"Again, maybe I'm missing something, but Cecil why do you believe that we could "only" invade Iran from Iraq."

You can't invade Iran from Pakistan because they won't let us. You can't invade Iran from Afghanistan because you can't airlift the heavy equipment required into the airbases there. (You wouldn't want to invade from the East anyway, because of the mountainous terrain.) An amphibious assault is impractical as well. You need a good port facility to land heavy equipment, and a staging area to prepare the assault. The only feasible one for Iran is Iraq.

"See James Fallows's article "Will Iran Be Next?", wherein such worthies as Reuel Marc Gerecht, Ken Pollack, and David Kay assess and reject an invasion of Iran as too risky."

Again, none of those guys are military planners (and looking at their article, their conclusions are suspect--an Israeli airstrike is clearly not feasible, and the only practicable invasion plan is the "heavy" option from the West--the rest are recipes for disaster). I'd defer to their expertise about possible political aftermaths, but the military dimension is relatively straightforward, and certainly within our capabilities. Again, the preferred outcome is for the Mullahs to decide against a WMD arsenal . . . but IMHO a credible threat is the best way to achieve that result.
12.28.2004 9:43pm
Cecil Turner (mail):
"I would like to know why you think so, particularly given Pakistan's failure to cooperate with us re: A.Q. Khan and the dubious control that Musharraf exercises over his intel establishment."

Musharraf has been cleaning house (to the extent he's provoked several assassination attempts), retired Khan, and enhancing controls over his nuclear arsenal. And while I'm not willing to place bets on which regime is more likely to be overthrown, there's little doubt that the Mullahs are more likely to view their weapons as anti-Western assets. And if you allow the term "stability" to mean which is less likely to undertake an irrational act, the Mullahs are clear losers on that as well.
12.28.2004 10:15pm
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):
Greedy Clerk,

You may need more salt with your information diet, although that is always a matter of taste. I agree with only one statement you made:

2. No link, at all, to September 11.

I disagree with the rest. Do you ever read Strategy Page? Do you ever read Victor Davis Hanson? How about Stephen Den Beste, whom I linked earlier? I consider them salt. These folks know war, and this one is going well, for a war. Compare it to the Russians fighting next to their own country, with more troops, against a smaller, less well armed Chechnya as compared to Iraq. When the Russians tried to take the capital they faced the same tactics we faced in Fallujah. They lost eight hundred men the first day. To win they didn't use precision strikes which destroy relatively little. They leveled the city. People are still living in refugee camps there.

Where are the millions of refugees in Iraq? Where are the massacres? I grant you the war is horrible, but it is a war, after all. You have to compare apples to apples, and when I do that, I see this war is going well. The key difference is to place the war in historical perspective and to compare it to other wars.

Yours,
Wince
12.29.2004 10:46am
P.H. (mail):
Professor Kerr has invited comments, and I trust he will not mind comments on his observations rather than on the war or the number of deaths. Put simply, I am puzzled by his suggestion that he is not “comforted” by Lindgren’s numbers. Kerr’s words suggest that Lindgren encouraged readers to take comfort from the numbers, and cued by this introduction, some of the comments have joined Kerr in questioning whether Lindgen’s numbers are comforting.

This is curious because Lindgren posted his numbers in response to a protester who simply carried around a sign with the number 1300 (the number of American deaths in Iraq), and Lindgren evidently was attempting to debunk the notion that numbers alone are informative. He did so, as might be expected from a distinguished commentator on numerical matters, by posting other numbers from another controversial war—indeed, from a war in which nightly body counts were notoriously and foolishly treated as the measure of success. Did he thereby suggest that one take “comfort” from the numbers? This not clear, for he simply provided evidence that someone else’s argument from numbers was inadequate.

Of course, a supporter of the war could take comfort from the numbers posted by Lindgren. Similarly, a opponent could find in them a reminder of all that is distressing about the war. Revealingly, Lindgren merely posted the numbers without expressing his opinion, and although he posted them to debunk the numerical argument of an opponent of the war, he did not go so far as to say that the numbers were comforting.

For each person, his life is an entire universe, even if others view it with indifference. Accordingly, it is difficult to look with equanimity on the death of even one American or Iraqi. Nonetheless, as events of this week suggest, numbers matter. The ocean swept away the lives of more than a hundred thousand people, and the scope of the tragedy clearly is relevant. For purposes of the debate about the war, it is at least worth remembering that those who professionally study and explain numbers often present data without dictating to readers what conclusions they should reach, and this is not evidence of callousness. To explain numbers is not necessarily to take comfort in them. —PH
1.1.2005 9:47pm