June 10, 2005

On officer fatalities in Iraq

An interesting Crooked Timber thread, to which I contributed already, brings up the rate of officer fatalities in Iraq. American officer fatalities do seem to be at both something of a historic low, and a low relative to other combatant nations.

The most cited website in this regard listed 1686 combat and non-combat fatalities for the U.S. in Iraq as of today. Of those, the following numbers were commissioned officers:

2Lt: 20
1Lt: 41
Capt/Lt(N): 64
Maj/LtCdr(N): 17
LtCol/Cdr(N): 9
Col: 1

Total of 152, or 9.0% of all fatalities.

The Vietnam total was 6,602 out of 58,193, or 11.3%.

The number of officer fatalities is also significantly lower than the percentage of total commissioned officers in the military as a whole today, which according to this site is 15.2%. (In the Army/Marines alone, which are disproportionately the forces engaged in Iraq and traditionally have lower officer numbers relative to soldiers, officers form a slightly lower percentage, at 13.1%; in Vietnam, those numbers, if anything, were slightly lower).

That number can also compares (favourably or unfavourably, depending on how you look at it) to other nations currently fighting in Iraq. Remembering these are much smaller sample sizes, the numbers for other nations with more than 20 combat fatalities (including the Poles and Ukrainians together, as they fought together in Iraq and have similar force composition and recent military tradition) one gets:

Italy: 3 out of 26 (11.5%)
Britain: 14 out of 89 (15.7%; *but see note below)
Poland/Ukraine: 13 out of 35 (37.1%)

Now, part of this is certainly the unique American practice of calling helicopter pilots and other technical specialists "warrant officers," somewhere between the non-commissioned ranks and officers (Commonwealth armies have warrant officers, but those are undoubtedly non-officer ranks, something like senior sergeants). A task that an RAF flight lieutenant might take on, like commanding a helicopter, can be performed by an US Army WO. Roughly 1.6% of all US Army and Marine serviceman are warrant officers, and they have sustained 23 deaths, or 1.4% of all fatalities in Iraq. Inclusion of them in officer fatalities skews the total fraction of officer and warrant officer deaths up to 10.3% of all fatalities in Iraq (but even that's still lower than Vietnam, where the comparable number, officer-plus-warrant fatalities, was 13.5% of the total).

In fact, probably the better control for the warrant factor would be to exclude flight crew from the statistics generally, both U.S. army/Marine warrant officers, and British officer pilots. This is difficult to do precisely without more in-depth study, but for instance in the British case, excluding the RAF and Royal Navy (and hence all the pilot-officers) brings the officer fatality rate down to 5 out of 60, or 8.3%... similar to the U.S. total minus their warrants... albeit, again, on a significantly smaller sample.

Nevertheless, it does seem clear that there has been a drop in officer-fatality rates in U.S. service since Vietnam. This could be for a number of reasons:

1) increased technology, leading to more from-the-rear leadership within Iraq;
2) the pattern of attacks in Iraq somehow favouring fatalities among non-commissioned soldiers (ie, truck drivers);
3) other structural reasons, that could lead to state-side service being even more heavily weighted in officer terms than it was 35 years ago, and hence pushing those officers out of combat zones.
4) evidence of the Boyd-Vandergriff thesis, that today's military has replaced traditional notions of "leadership" with "management."

The inherent difficulty this leads to, as Gabriel and Savage observed in the Vietnam context, and which was raised again in the Crooked Timber thread, is that the entire "officer compact" and accompanying set of privileges appears to rest upon an increased acceptance of risk by the leadership. If this is no longer observably the case (and what some could interpret as preferential treatment for officers in recent military justice decisions such as Abu Ghraib cannot help much) this could lead to a fraying of the military leadership system, and/or have an impact on overall force morale.

Now, the Gabriel/Savage thesis, that army morale is based in part on officer martyrdom, is not exactly unquestionable. For instance, to pick two numbers out of a very large hat, the officer fatality rate among the Australians at Gallipoli, recognized as a high-quality force under extreme pressure, was only 4.6%. Front-line Marine units in Vietnam had a officer casualty rate of 6.1%. Note though, that these were units where the officer-to-soldier ratio was also much lower, around 5-6% of the total soldiers deployed, so the risk was not actually disproportionate to total officer numbers the way it is in Iraq, apparently.

And there is certainly such a thing as officer fatality rates being too high... in conscripted and other low-quality armies, because the soldiers don't fight as hard, officer casualties are frequently disproportionate to their total numbers, in the other direction (so, for instance, only further study of exact circumstances could really illuminate whether that astounding Polish/Ukrainian one-in-three officer fatality number in Iraq is more a testament to their officer quality, or the poor quality of the average soldiers, or both).

What it is fair to say is that a combat environment situation where the leaders do not die relatively at least as often as the led has not historically proven sustainable in the long run, and a situation like the U.S. has in Iraq, where officers are apparently dying at a significantly LOWER rate than the average soldier, is historically unusual, at best. For the officer ranks to have become comparatively safer to inhabit than even in Vietnam either indicates a flaw in the Gabriel-Savage thesis regarding one of the reasons for that war's military morale breakdown, or augurs poorly for the future of the American fighting force in Iraq.

[On a side note, comparison of the same Iraq and Vietnam websites would seem to indicate that the percentage of reservist fatalities is unsurprisingly higher in Iraq... 20.4% of the total (13.0% National Guard), compared to 10.1% in Vietnam (0.2% National Guard)].

Posted by BruceR at 12:09 PM