Attrition: Casualties Down in Iraq


January2, 2007: Casualties in Iraq were down this year, about four percent less than the 6,793 dead and wounded in 2005. That's not the impression you get from the mass media, but that's because bad news leads, and good news gets buried. But Iraq is most definitely still a combat zone. Some U.S. troops sent there in 2006 became casualties, and about one in 200 was killed. Very much a dangerous undertaking. And those are just the physical, combat casualties. Even more troops got sick from disease, or were injured in non-combat accidents. Also, about one in 500 troops developed a serious case of combat fatigue, and was sent home. About half the troops, those that spent any time "outside the wire" (where they could get shot at), also developed less serious cases of combat fatigue. The military knows, from past experience, that cumulative time spent in a combat zone like Iraq, will eventually wear a soldier out.

The British have shared data they acquired from several decades of sending battalions of troops to Northern Ireland. Too many years spent dodging rocks and bullets, and British soldiers developed psychological problems. Actually, the same thing is turning up in the civilian "emergency services" (police, fire and medical). Get exposed to traumatic events over too long a time, and you, well, sort of burn out on it. Actually, that effect has even been noted in high pressure jobs that have nothing to do with blood, bullets or fires. Some types of traders in the financial industry are noted for their propensity to "burn out" after so many years. Stress gets to you after a while, even if you are trained to handle it, like combat troops are.

In Iraq, the army is also discovering the Israelis first noted in 1982, that older reservists have less capacity for combat stress than do younger men. Being older may make you wiser, but it also leaves you more beat up by the usual stresses of life. Older reservists, activated and sent to a combat zone, come back more the worse for it than do younger soldiers.

So while the physical casualties in Iraq were down in 2006, the psychological ones, because they are cumulative, are up. Or, rather, they are piling up.


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