Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the forces in the Gulf, have a common bond. Each wears the Combat Infantry Badge. They served as infantrymen in combat in an earlier war. Perhaps that combat service is having an influence on the decision to delay the ground war as long as is militarily (and politically, I suppose) possible. Those two soldiers may not be able to recite the numbers of infantrymen who have died in our past wars as I am able to do in this piece. But they both know that those infantrymen became casualties at a frightening and disproportionate rate.
First, a word of explanation: a casualty is a man who is lost to his unit, for whatever reason. But to get a Purple Heart he has to be a battle casualty, lost to his unit as a result of enemy action. That's all we'll consider here. So if there are 5,000 casualties in a particular "action," there might be 4,000 wounded in action, 1,000 killed in action (and probably some missing in action, which we'll not consider here). But they're all casualties.
While writing about the infantry a few years ago, I got some casualty figures from both the Department of the Army and the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. Their figures showed, among other things, that more than 80 percent of all our casualties in our recent wars have been infantrymen. This short table shows them:
WAR.....MONTHS OF..........TOTAL....INFANTRY.....% INFANTRY
Some interesting facts about these impersonal figures:
WW I: Though we were in the war for some 19 months, the fighting that produced these casualties took place in about 200 days from April to November 1918.
WW II: There were some 112,776 additional Army Air Corps casualties. The Air Force was a part of the Army in those days.
Korea: Thirty one thousand, four hundred eighty two men were killed in action; 82 percent of them were infantrymen.
Vietnam: We were actually in Vietnam for 13 years, but the "heavy" fighting took place from 1965 to 1971. Also, the Army had some 28,862 killed in action in which my source did not break out infantry KIAs. It also showed 12,931 Marines killed in action, 1,242 Navy and 552 Air Force.
Let's assume those Air Force casualty figures are accurate, and let's also assume that in the first month of a ground war in the Gulf we had Infantry/Air Force KIAs in about the same ratio: 28,800/550. In a month of ground warfare in which the air forces lose, say, 25 men, the Army would lose about 1,300 killed of which 1,100 to 1,200 would be infantrymen.
We have watched with pride and awe as the young Air Force pilots (of all the coalition nations) have performed so well in our high-tech war -- and lost so few men.
But my numbers show that a ground war would be ugly, deadly, bloody and horrible. We must not become committed to it if there is any possibility at all of being able to defeat Saddam Hussein with air and naval power and then simply using the ground forces to move in and take over what's left after the Iraqis move out of Kuwait or surrender or whatever it is we will want them to do. And we must not be tempted because one or another service or branch of a service wants to "get in the fight."
Do we want another beautiful but sad black wall decorated with thousands of names -- some 84 percent of which would be infantrymen?
The writer graduated from West Point in 1945 and commanded an infantry company in the Korean War and an infantry battalion in Vietnam.