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The Costs of Staying the Course

Conditions in Iraq and in Past Wars Cast Casualty Tolls in a Different Light

By Brian Gifford
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page A19

More than 1,200 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq so far. In the face of rising casualties, polls taken throughout the election season revealed the public's discomfort with our progress in Iraq but gave little indication of weakening support for the mission. This ambivalence about the war's human costs reflects perhaps both a belief in the cause for which our troops are fighting and a perception that in the aggregate their sacrifices -- while always tragic on an individual level -- are historically light. A glance at earlier wars seemingly confirms this latter sentiment. Compared with the more than 405,000 American personnel killed in World War II and the 58,000 killed in Vietnam, Iraq hardly seems like a war at all.

But focusing on how few military deaths we've suffered conceals the difficulty of the mission and the determination of the forces arrayed against the American presence in Iraq. A closer look at these deaths -- 1,232 as I write -- reveals a real rate of manpower attrition that raises questions about our ability to sustain our presence there in the long run.

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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.

These figures suggest that our forces in Iraq face a far more serious threat than the public, the media and the political establishment typically acknowledge or understand. Man for man, a soldier or Marine in Iraq faces a mission nearly as difficult as that in Vietnam a generation earlier. This is in spite of the fact that his contemporary enemies do not field heavy armored vehicles or aircraft and do not enjoy the support and patronage of a superpower such as the Soviet Union. Our better-prepared troops are taking casualties at a real rate not tremendously lower than their predecessors in World War II, a bloodier, costlier, longer war that was fought on three continents and across three oceans and one that relied heavily on face-to-face combat rather than precision-guided munitions.

The focus on how "light" casualties have been so far rather than on what those casualties signify serves to rationalize the continued conduct of the war and prevents us as a nation from confronting the realities of conditions in Iraq. Even more troubling, daily casualties have almost tripled since before the first attack on Fallujah in April. Conditions are getting worse, not improving. To be sure, American forces are winning the body count. That the insurgency is nonetheless growing more effective in the face of heavier losses makes it difficult to imagine an exit strategy that any reasonable person would recognize as a "victory."

Some will charge that this analysis amounts to defeatism. I disagree. Understanding the battlefield as the men and women of our armed forces experience it acknowledges the sacrifices they are making in our name.

Taking false comfort in the fact that earlier wars claimed a greater number of lives trivializes those sacrifices. We owe them and our nation a realistic discussion about the potential benefits of staying the course in Iraq vs. the probable costs. If history is any guide, those costs will be heavy.

The writer is a research fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the University of California at Berkeley.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company