Friday, August 31, 2007

Behind the Numbers

As August draws to a close, we're waiting for that usual spate of stories that details American military deaths in Iraq over the past month. Earlier this year, when U.S. forces were averaging more than one hundred fatalities a month, the casualty stories were front-page news, proof that the recently-launched troop surge was not working.

Last month, the tone of those articles shifted dramatically, with news that monthly death toll had dropped sharply, from 101 in June, to 79 in July. However, as we've noted before, stories about "body counts" are not always an accurate indicator of what's happening on the battlefield. By that standard, some of the most successful military campaigns in history would be judged as failures, because they resulted in significant casualties.

Additionally, most of the casualty coverage from Iraq has made no mention of enemy deaths, for a couple of reasons. First, that data is often difficult to compile, while U.S. fatalities are dutifully reported by the Defense Department. Secondly, the idea that we're killing large numbers of terrorists detracts from the "meat grinder" template that's been established with the monthly casualty stories and other reporting from Iraq.

That's why the "slant" of the August casualty statistics should prove interesting--and illustrative. Ahead of General Petraeus's report on the troop surge (due in a couple of weeks), the monthly casualty stories provide an opportunity for the MSM to prepare their "backdrop" for his assessment. It's a safe bet the press reporting will highlight the "failures" of Iraq's government, despite significant progress by coalition security forces. In a similar vein, the most casualty totals can be used to paint the "high cost" at which that progress was achieved.

With the end of the month just a few hours away in Baghdad, the U.S. fatality total for August stands at 79--the same number recorded last month. That will likely generate such headlines as "American deaths hold steady in August," or "Combat deaths inch upward," (assuming that there are additional fatalities that have not yet been reported by DoD). In either case, the implication is the same: We're still losing 80 soldiers a month, so our "progress" is clearly limited.

But that analysis is wrong on multiple levels. Not only have the number of attacks dropped steadily, U.S. combat deaths have also continued their decline. Unlike this forum (and other milblogs), the MSM simply lumps all of the monthly fatalities together, regardless of cause. Fact is, our forces in Iraq suffer a number of non-hostile casualties each month, the results of illnesses, accidents and other mishaps. That may be little consolation to the families, but it is an important consideration if you're using combat deaths as an indicator of "progress."

Using data from the icasualties web site, we determined that 54 U.S. military personnel were killed in combat in Iraq during August. The other 25 died mostly in accidents, including two helicopter crashes that claimed a total of 19 American lives. The continued drop in combat deaths follows a trend that's become increasingly evident, as detailed by this monthly breakdown, which includes the number of hostile fire and non-combat deaths:

Month/Total Fatalities/Hostile/Non-Hostile

April 104 94 10
May 126 118 8
Jun 101 92 9
Jul 79 66 13
Aug 79 54 25

In other words, Americans combat deaths in Iraq has dropped by almost 50% over the past three months--while the number of troops in harm's way has increased (the surge hit its peak less than two weeks ago), with a corresponding spike in our operational tempo. We mourn for all of our fallen heroes, but the significant drop in casualties--during a period of greatly expanded operations--offers clear proof that the surge is working, and that their sacrifice was not in vain.

Now, let's see how much of that "analysis" makes its way into the monthly casualty sorties that will appear over the weekend.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Interesting analysis, spook.

Two caveats, though. The first is that we really ought not use casualty figures as a benchmark on the success of combat operations. Otherwise, Omaha and Utah beaches would have been evacuated by noon.

Also, there is something of a seasonal variation to the insurgents' attacks and the resultant casualty figures. Whether the reduction in casualties is a result of the seasonal variation or serves as a bona fide indication of the surge's success is probably not yet known.

STILL, even one casualty is a tragic loss and the recent downward trend is encouraging.

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