TCS Daily

Body Count

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 26, 2003 12:00 AM

After less than a week of fighting in Iraq, talk of the American public being shocked by U.S. combat losses is abroad in the land. Perhaps it would be good for all armchair generals to get some perspective on battle casualties. Here's some history and some numbers that might be helpful.

At present there are 300,000 U.S. service personnel in the Iraq region and perhaps 40,000 in combat in and over Iraq. In the past six days about 40 American and British troops have been killed, an unknown number wounded, another 15 or so reported missing and less than ten confirmed as prisoners. An estimated 500 Iraqi soldiers have been killed, more than 3500 taken prisoner and several thousand more disarmed and set free.

It is certain these figures will grow as fighting intensifies in coming days. Indeed, these numbers are very "fluid," not to say, shaky, because some of these deaths were due to accidents, and at least one was a murder (that fragging incident in Kuwait).

Still, they are extraordinarily light coalition casualties when you consider that British and American troops are ranging throughout an armed and hostile country looking for a fight and finding it as they move from city to city closing the ring on Baghdad. (A headline in the Tuesday Palm Beach Post read "Urban warfare dangerous for U.S. troops." No kidding?)

During the Gulf War of 1990-91, the United States deployed 1,136,658 service personnel to the Gulf. In the little more than four days (100 hours) of fighting that followed a long bombing campaign, America suffered 147 battle deaths and 467 wounded. Some of those deaths were from friendly fire, and 28 were from a single SCUD attack on Dharan.

Military deaths in the theater but not combat-related were much higher - 235 - due mostly to accidents. Vehicle accidents are all too common in rear areas of a combat zone. So are what would otherwise be called "industrial accidents" within the vast complex constituting the forces' rear supply system. In fact, it has been estimated that throughout the American military establishment each year there are about 2000 deaths, mostly from vehicle accidents, training accidents and the like.

In this day, where every battle death becomes a three-minute drama looped endlessly through our TV screens, the American media seem preoccupied with how many casualties the American public can "take." But the fact is, we are seeing amazingly light casualties. The U.S. suffered 7,500 dead and thousands more wounded over less than three months in the battle to take Okinawa from the Japanese in 1945 (more than 100,000 Japanese troops were killed). The drive to retake Seoul from North Korean Communists in September 1950 cost the U.S. 6,000 casualties over 10 days following the Inchon Landing. The North and the South each lost over 11,000 killed and wounded in one day at Antietam, September 17, 1862. It remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. military history.

Consider these numbers:

  • The 53,402 American battle deaths in World War I constituted 1.1 percent of the total U.S. military.
  • The 291,557 battle deaths in War II were 1.8 percent.
  • The 33,686 in Korea were six tenths of a percent.
  • The 47,410 in Vietnam were a half of a percent of the total in the services.
  • The 147 deaths in Gulf War combat were six one-thousandths of a percent of the total U.S. military.

From the American Revolution to the Gulf War, the U.S. has had 650,954 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen killed in action, 1.5 percent of the total who have served. (These figures are extrapolated from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs historical statistics.)

There is an interesting paradox, or at least a seeming one, in the relation of war casualties to the awesome lethality of modern weapons. Casualties as a percentage of the deployed combat force on both sides in wars have been declining for the past four centuries even as the killing power of weapons has increased. The only two exceptions are the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War. In the earlier, Napoleon packed his troops in dense infantry columns to break through in the face of massed artillery and musketry. In the latter, both sides, but particularly the Union, attacked in close-order waves against devastating defensive fire from vastly improved weapons.

Generally, however, every time a new weapon has been introduced, it has held only a brief sway on the battlefield as the consummate killer. The fighting armies quickly adapt. The machine-gun is a classic example. One of the reasons for the horrendous casualty rates at the beginning of World War I was due to the fact that planners did not appreciate the machine-gun's affect on massed waves of infantry. There was a sharp and bloody learning curve. They should have learned earlier by assessing the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.

The point is armies learn quickly, if a little late, to adapt to new weapons. They do this chiefly by simply dispersing their forces so that a single weapon can harm fewer troops and assets. They adopt fire and movement. They pay more attention to camouflage, deception and shelter. They adopt new protective measures. The German introduction of gas during World War I was a horror at first. But the introduction of gas masks and proper training reduced it mainly to a nuisance by the end of the war.

In short, armies learn or they don't survive. One of the fascinating things about this present war is finding out just what Iraq may have learned from the fearful pounding it took in 1990-91. For example - Can you imagine, in this age of smart bombs and laser-guided artillery, being an Iraqi sitting in the turret of an aging T-62 tank somewhere south of Baghdad? What is he thinking?


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