Dohiyi Mir
    In Which NTodd Says His Peace

Thursday, May 06, 2004
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Grisly Arithmetic

I was arguing with somebody the other night about Iraq-Vietnam comparisons. Inevitably, wingers point out the literal differences between the two conflicts, as though we don't know there are differences and that the analogy requires them to be exactly the same to hold true. One of the most popular reasons they list for why Iraq is no Vietnam is the casualty level, so I decided to take a look more closely.

Of course, it doesn't take a lot of research to recognize that casualties in Vietnam were an order of magnitude higher than what we're incurring in Iraq. But one would expect our casualties to be fewer now, wouldn't we? I mean, we've been told that our military technology is a force multiplier, so we need fewer troops to do the job and all that. But whatever.

First, some raw data. Here's a chart I built comparing the first 14 months of each conflict1:

What leaps out at me is that during the initial combat phase in Iraq, we suffered more casualties than we did in Vietnam. Of course, things got rapidly worse in Vietnam, whereas our quick overthrow of Saddam's regime bought us a relative "lull" in fighting. One other scary thing: we've seen a dramatic upward trend in casualties in the last few months, and May shows no sign of the violence abating.

All told, there were 14,910 killed and wounded during the first 14 months of Vietnam, and 4852 total casualties2 during the same span in Iraq. Great, we've only lost about 1/3 the personnel we did in Vietnam. Wow, I guess the wingers are right that Iraq is totally not Vietnam. It sucks 1/3 less!

What it all comes down to is this: wingers seem to think there is a threshold that we must pass before we can compare Vietnam and Iraq, and before we can call this a quagmire. Okay, so when do we cross that line? Do we have to be knee deep in the Big Muddy (or Sandy) before we recognize we're bogged down? Will we know we're in trouble when we have 1000 dead?

I was asked to put a number on it myself (I'll note the person asking the question never provided his). I said 500. Mostly arbitrary, but I figured it was a round milestone number, and clearly indicated that we'd been a) in Iraq for a significant time, thus the conflict would not be a Six Week Wonder like GWI, and b) incurring low-level casualties on a continuing basis, indicating that we aren't making any progress in terms of security and stability. Given that Vietnam also started slowly, and when we hit 500 in Iraq we were beginning to trend upward, this sounded like a reasonable marker of quagmireness.

But more importantly, how many is too many? Is 11,552 acceptable? How about 18,937? Or 29,853? Roughly 30k is apparently how many the "mass public" would accept in Iraq, according to a 1999 survey. However, what's important to note is the study asked specifically how tolerant would Americans be of casualties in a conflict to rid Saddam of WMD. Further, it seems that "what is crucial for maintaining public support is not [the incursion of] casualties per se, but casualties in an inconclusive war, casualties that the public sees as being suffered indefinitely, for no clear, good, or achievable purpose." That is why support for the war has slid.3

Let's leave Vietnam for the moment. All the talk about Abu Ghraib has made me wonder about some other comparisons. Wingers are gnashing their teeth, wailing, "where were the liberals when Saddam was doing bad things?" Is that really the bar we've set for ourselves: that we do bad things, but not as much as Saddam did?

I think of the Iraqis we've killed in combat since March, 2003, and the new revelations of abuse, torture and murder at our hands and again wonder, how much is too much? Is 11,000 Iraqi civilians we killed in just over 1 year (not counting the 1300+ we killed in April alone) really that much better than the 300,000 Saddam killed in 25? Is our abuse better than Saddam's because we mean well?

Not only have we gone in and destabilized a region and pissed off the Arab world more than they already were, but we've done the very things the bad guys have done. Keeping score and saying we're an order of magnitude less evil is cold comfort. This time it's my fucking government that is to blame. Morally and pragmatically, if not strategically, this war is a disaster.

Why did we lose Vietnam? Wingers like to say hippies and politicians are to blame. I'd say it was our inability to match our words with our deeds: saying we are defending freedom sounds great, but the reality of abuse, death and destruction trumps any assertions we make. Why did we lose Iraq? The numbers aren't exactly the same as Vietnam, but as Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, at best it rhymes." We're singing the same sad song today that we did 40 years ago.


1 - I'm dating Vietnam as having started in March, 1965, when the first combat troops arrived (3,500 Marines, augmenting 25,000 advisors already in country). I think starting as early as 1961 is warranted, but I see most people put it somewhere between '64 and '66. Data sources: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, US National Archives & Records Administration, and Lunaville.

2 - This is assuming that Col. Hackworth is not correct when he says we're approaching 22,000 casualties. I've seen such high figures reported elsewhere, usually based on evacs or how many people have been treated at hospitals like Walter Reed, but I'm going to stick with the officially reported figures.

3 - That's interesting because support for Vietnam didn't start to really tank until late 1967.

[Update: made some minor edits.] 

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A non-violent, counter-dominant, left-liberal, possibly charismatic, quasi anarcho-libertarian Quaker's take on politics, volleyball, and other esoterica.

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