Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Army Casualties

Here's a fact that may surprise you:
During a pre-departure briefing this spring to about 360 troops at Contingency Operating Base Adder in southern Iraq, Colonel Newell paced in front of them, saying he felt uncomfortable about their impending return to Fort Bliss.

"I have a little stress over sending a brigade home," he said. "The sad truth is that it is safer for me to keep you in Iraq drawing combat pay with people trying to kill you than it is for me to take you back home."

given the brigade's record at Fort Bliss of suicide, murder, assault, drunken driving and drug use, its troops are statistically at greater risk at home than while deployed in Iraq. During the past year, only one of the unit's soldiers died in combat, but in 2008, the last time the brigade was home from Iraq, seven soldiers were killed and six others committed crimes in which at least four civilians and soldiers from outside the brigade died in a little more than a year. 

Note that this is the worst brigade in the army on these measures; its selection for the article is typical of journalists focusing on the most extreme and shocking cases.  

But its main point is still a fact: If you are the kind of young man who joins the armed forces, then being in combat is about as dangerous as living a civilian life.  This is not true during the spikes of intense fighting that make the news, but it is true over longer periods of time.

In the past, war used to be something big.  It meant killing enough people to have effects on demographics, and it meant spending so much money that the government was in danger of bankruptcy.  Our modern wars are but pale shadows of this.  The number of Americans killed in recent wars is an actuarial rounding error compared to the numbers killed in things like car crashes and medical malpractice.  The amount of money we spend on the military in the middle of two different shooting wars, as a percentage of GDP, is lower than it was in the middle of the cold war.  The wars have had almost zero economic impact on our country.

In addition to this, the collateral damage we cause has decreased by at least an order of magnitude.  The number of innocent civilians killed accidentally over an entire decade is lower then the number of innocent civilians killed deliberately in a single night of firebombing major Japanese and German cities during World War 2.

This trend will probably continue.  Unless something happens to dramatically alter the structure of modern civilization, wars will get cheaper and cheaper for everyone involved, until they are almost indistinguishable from police actions that target organized crime.  

Before the 20th century, a soldier was more likely to die from a disease or infection than from a combat-related cause.  During the 21st century, we will likely return to this state of affairs.  So in the grand scheme of things, the idea that a soldier has the most to fear from enemy fire is a strange and temporary thing.

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