Saturday, June 21, 2008

U.S. casualty rate down in Iraq

"War means fighting, and fighting means killing," a famous general once said. Thus, casualties are not an argument against war. Casualties are an inevitable result of war, and if a war is worth fighting, it is worth fighting whatever the casualty rate.

Nevertheless, since Vietnam, many Americans have accepted the idea that military casualties are unacceptable. These people have argued that our troops should be withdrawn from Iraq because the casualty rate is too high.

During the first four years of the Iraq war (2003-2006), U.S. military deaths totaled 2,999, according to, a rate of about 750 per year. This may seem like a heavy toll, but historically it is not. More than 6,500 U.S. troops were killed in the course of a little over a month to capture Iwo Jima, a 5,000-acre volcanic speck in the Pacific. During a single three-year period (1967-69) of the Vietnam war, the U.S. lost more than 39,000 troops killed in action -- i.e., an average of more than 1,000 deaths per month.

However, if the defeatists were correct in arguing that 750 combat deaths per year was an indication of U.S. failure, and thus cause for withdrawal, what if the casualty rate declined?

Well, guess what? In May, U.S. forces suffered only 19 deaths in Iraq, the lowest monthly total since the invasion began in March 2003. And this was not an anomaly, but part of a trend of declining U.S. casualties as a result of the apparent success of the "surge" that began in February 2007.

The surge only reached full strength in August, and the surge brigades are now returning home. If lower U.S. casualty rates are a measure of success, the surge appears to have been an overwhelming success. A comparison:
U.S. deaths in Iraq
Jan.-May 2004: 334 (66.8/mo.)
Jan.-May 2005: 332 (66.4/mo.)
Jan.-May 2006: 293 (58.6/mo.)
Jan.-May 2007: 475 (95.0/mo.)
Jan.-May 2008: 179 (35.8/mo.)
This chart, I would argue, helps demonstrate the folly of using casualties -- or rather, a lack of casualties -- as a measure of military success. The relatively low casualty rate of U.S. forces now is undoubtedly a consequence of the heavy fighting done by U.S. forces in 2007, when the surge began and when U.S. casualty rates were highest.

Still, U.S. casualties for the first five months of this year are 38.9% lower than for the first five months of 2006. if high casualties are an argument for withdrawing from Iraq, then by the same logic, low casualties should be an argument for not withdrawing from Iraq.

In fact, given that U.S. forces in Iraq suffered fewer combat deaths in May than did U.S. forces in Afghanistan, why isn't Barack Obama advocating withdrawal from Afghanistan?

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