Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 28, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND VIETNAM....Battlefield deaths in Iraq are considerably lower than they were in Vietnam, but that's partly because recent medical improvements allow more soldiers with severe wounds to survive, and partly because there are fewer total soldiers in Iraq than in Vietnam. When you control for both these variables, how does Iraq compare?

In Slate, Phil Carter and Owen West do the arithmetic to try to figure out the "intensity" of action in Iraq, and their conclusions are grim. A comparison of two specific battles illustrates what they're talking about:

In the three-week battle for Hue, 147 Marines were killed and 857 wounded. In the twin battles for Fallujah, more than 104 soldiers and Marines have been killed and more than 1,100 wounded....If you factor in the improvements in medical technology alone, then the fight for Fallujah was just as costly (or maybe more so) as that for Hue, as measured by the number of mortal wounds sustained by U.S. troops.

....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.

Critics of the war may use this analysis as one more piece of ammunition to attack the effort; some supporters may continue to refer to casualties as "light," noting that typically tens of thousands of Americans must die in war before domestic support crumbles. Both miss the point. The casualty statistics make clear that our nation is involved in a war whose intensity on the ground matches that of previous American wars. Indeed, the proportional burden on the infantryman is at its highest level since World War I. With next year's budget soon to be drafted, it is time for Washington to finally address their needs accordingly.

In the past, I've felt that comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam made sense only on a political level: like Vietnam, Iraq has been marked by politicians who have misled the public about the reasons for war, by a lack of candor about progress and goals, and by poor planning on the ground. Militarily, however, the two wars seemed quite distinct.

I still think that, but these casualty figures make me wonder. Iraq and Vietnam may be more similar than we think.

Kevin Drum 8:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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