Relative lethality

The 21st century wars of the U.S. kill large numbers of innocent civilians relative to combatants.

Published : Jan 26, 2007 00:00 IST

An Italian soldier of NATO's International Security Assistance Force near the site of a bomb explosion close to Herat airport, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, on December 21, 2006. The remote-controlled bomb killed four civilians and wounded six people, including a border police commander.-FRAIDOON POOYAA/AP

An Italian soldier of NATO's International Security Assistance Force near the site of a bomb explosion close to Herat airport, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, on December 21, 2006. The remote-controlled bomb killed four civilians and wounded six people, including a border police commander.-FRAIDOON POOYAA/AP

BEFORE dying in combat (or from an `accident' 1 ), a United States occupation soldier in Afghanistan will have participated in the killing of 16-19 Afghan civilians. Although data for Iraq are not strictly comparable (insofar as reported civilian deaths include those caused by more than just U.S. military action, and the conflict in Iraq has increasingly taken on the character of a civil war), the ratio of total civilian deaths to that of U.S. military deaths is 18.5-20.5. Another way of putting this is that civilians bear a rising and overwhelming burden of modern war (so-called precision munitions notwithstanding 2 ). Gino Strada, war surgeon and founder of Emergency Italia, with extensive first-hand experience in many modern war theatres, has argued that over 80 per cent of casualties in modern wars are civilians.

Table 1 contrasts U.S. military deaths and estimated civilian deaths resulting from the Afghan and Iraq invasions, through December 2006. The data on Afghan civilians killed by U.S. or North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) actions only is derived from three databases constructed by the author and available on the Internet in a disaggregated format. 3 The data for total Iraqi civilian deaths come from the website of Iraq Body Count. The data on U.S. and NATO military deaths are derived from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website. 4 The important message here is more the order of magnitudes, less the specific numbers. In all three wars, the ratio is relatively similar.

The case of Iraq, however, as Table 2 shows, is increasingly one of internal civil war. The high ratio of civilians killed, relative to U.S. military deaths in 2003 (the year of the U.S. invasion), is followed during 2004-05 by smaller figures. As civil war erupted in Iraq during 2006, the ratio almost doubled.

The data (Table 2) dramatically reveal that in modern American wars of the 21st century, civilians perish by a multiple of at least 18 compared with the aggressor nation's military personnel. (Data on Taliban or Iraqi resistance deaths are unavailable.) This figure represents a gross underestimate for a variety of reasons: it includes only impact deaths and omits injured civilians who later die; it does not include large numbers of civilian deaths that simply have gone unreported; it omits deaths caused by exposure to depleted uranium, and so on. 5

Shifting to examining the relative lethality for U.S. occupation soldiers in Afghanistan and in Iraq, my analysis will reveal that the numbers are generally comparable. Contrary to popular perception, Iraq is not a much more deadly place for U.S. soldiers than Afghanistan. In the initial phases of the Afghan war, U.S. casualties were minimal as the U.S. fought using a new type of military operation that relied upon highly mobile Special Forces, airpower, and purchased Afghan allies. 6

A historical note is worthy of mention: since 1865, wars have killed fewer soldiers as a percentage of the deployed combat force than was the case in previous wars. 7 The main reason for this trend is the increasing dispersion of forces across the battlefield in the face of more lethal weaponry. For example, for the First World War, the ratio was 12.0 soldiers killed for every thousand in a year, and for the Second World War it was 9.0. 8 Table 3 shows that for Iraq it is about 5.7 currently. Also, fewer injured soldiers are dying. Whereas in the Vietnam War (1961-73) and the Persian Gulf War (1990-91), the percentage of U.S. soldiers who died from wounds was 24 per cent, in the current Afghan/Iraq conflicts it is 10 per cent. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine noted:

"Though firepower has increased, lethality has decreased. In World War II, 30 per cent of the Americans injured in combat died. In Vietnam, the proportion dropped to 24 per cent. In the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 10 per cent of those injured have died. At least as many U.S. soldiers have been injured in combat in this war as in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or the first five years of the Vietnam conflict, from 1961 through 1965. This can no longer be described as a small or contained conflict. But a far larger proportion of soldiers are surviving their injuries." 9

On the other hand, though lethality for soldiers has decreased over the 20th century, no other century has matched it in terms of numbers of people killed: "in all, between 167 million and 188 million people died because of organised violence in the twentieth century... ." 10

Table 3 compares the lethality for U.S. occupation troops of Iraq and Afghanistan for the years 2005-06. The lethality ratio is defined as soldiers killed per 1,000 in-theatre troops. The figures for the in-theatre total levels of U.S. troops represent estimated annual averages. The data on U.S. military deaths come from the Iraq Coalition Casualty website.

A number of interesting observations emerge from Table 3. First, the level of apparent lethality for U.S. troops is higher in Iraq (about 25 per cent higher in 2006). Secondly, in both war theatres, the level of lethality has been falling for U.S. occupation forces.

As regards Afghanistan, the primary reason for this apparent decline is that the United States has successfully "convinced" NATO member-countries (especially Canada and Britain) to increasingly bear the brunt of the combat in southern Afghanistan, experiencing far greater lethality ratios. NATO's occupation force rose from 11,000 in 2005 to 18,500 in 2006. 11 NATO casualties rose from 31 to 93 between 2005 and 2006. When one adds NATO casualties to U.S. casualties for both years, assuming that U.S. forces would have continued to do the fighting in southern Afghanistan, the lethality ratio (defined as killed in-theatre/1,000 troops in-theatre) would rise, respectively to 7.2 (2005) and 8.7 (2006) compared with the figures of 6.0 and 5.7 respectively in Iraq. In other words, lethality in the Afghan theatre rose significantly during 2006 compared with 2005, and surpasses that of Iraq. 12 The figures for Iraq, on the other hand, reveal an approximately constant number of non-U.S. military deaths during the same period (51 to 49). The lethality ratio for British troops in Afghanistan during 2006 was 6.3 - 9.8, with Britain's Afghan adventure increasingly resembling a quagmire. 13

During the 1980s, the annual lethality rate for Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan was 12.5. 14 A statistician of Britain's Royal Statistical Society, Professor Sheila Bird, has calculated that since May 2006 (through August), for every 1,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan (out of a total NATO commitment of 18,500 troops), 12.9 were dying on an annual basis, giving a lethality ratio of 12.9, which is higher than the Soviet one in the 1980s. 15 While the lethality ratios are comparable, the levels of in-theatre troops differ markedly: the Soviets had 120,000 occupation soldiers in Afghanistan compared to NATO's 18,500 at the end of 2006. The overall annual lethality rate during 2006 is 5.0 for NATO forces, but this is drawn down because most NATO forces are not in the turbulent south and east. This compares to a NATO lethality ratio of 2.8 for 2005. 16 Bird found that attacks by insurgent forces have raised the fatality rate (of NATO's International Security Assistance Force) to an average of five a week - more than twice the death rate coalition forces sustained during the battle for control of Iraq in 2003. 17

Anecdotal evidence from U.S. and British soldiers supports the finding that Afghanistan is "tougher" than Iraq. 18 In Afghanistan, the United States has been very successful at shifting the burden of military casualties upon its NATO allies, precisely at a time when the lethality of combat there has been rising substantially and surpasses that in Iraq. The lethality ratio for NATO occupation forces in 2006 was over three times that for U.S. troops. The French seem to have understood the dynamic and announced that by the end of 2006 they would withdraw their 200 Special Forces combat troops from southern and eastern Afghanistan (where they had been deployed since July 2003).

The level of lethality for U.S. occupation forces is actually much higher than the figures in Table 4 suggest. This is because of the "long tail phenomenon" as applied to the U.S. military (the number of support personnel (the tail) required to support combat troops (the tooth). The tail has also been greatly lengthened as the U.S. military has contracted out to private military contractors (such as Halliburton-KBR, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, Blackwater and Executive Outcomes) for support services (with all kinds of problems related to oversight, corruption and over-billing). 19 Such outsourcing has been driven less by cost considerations than by a desire to reduce military casualties, which are politically costly in the U.S. In 1998, the U.S. military in its TTA-2003 analysis estimated that it required a ratio of 2.5 for support personnel to combat personnel; that is, over 70 per cent of the in-theatre troops are involved in support rather than in combat. 20 Others cite an even higher number of 10:1 for the support to combat ratio. 21

If one reduces the in-theatre troop universe by 70 per cent, the lethality ratios rise enormously. A problem is that this ignores the fact that many U.S. military deaths are of what would technically be considered support troops (engaged in convoy protection and other transportation activities), all the more so as the domestic resistance has chosen to primarily strike softer targets (such as support troops, non-governmental organisations and so on). 22 The true lethality ratio is also significantly raised by the long-term effects upon U.S. military forces caused by weaponry employing depleted uranium. 23

The death profile (measured in terms of monthly U.S. deaths) of the Iraq war far surpasses that of the Vietnam War at a similar time point in each war's political lifetime, as demonstrated in Table 5. 24

But this comparison, while visually dramatic, is fundamentally flawed as a measure of lethality because one needs to compare soldier deaths with the in-theatre number of troops. When one does that for Vietnam, one discovers very high lethality ratios. In 1966, monthly reported U.S. deaths were in the range of 500 soldiers out of a total in-theatre force of 300,000, giving a lethality ratio of 20; in 1967, 1,000 soldiers died every month when the in-theatre force was 400,000; and in 1968-69, some 1,500 troops died monthly when the in-theatre force was 500,000 (giving a lethality ratio of 36). 25 The average annual lethality ratio in the Korean War (1950-53) was a very high 53. 26 Oblivious of the need to make a relative comparison and typical of the claptrap bandied about in conservative circles today was the view expressed in 2005 by Victor Davis Hanson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution: "... the nearly 2,000 U.S. combat fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq, while tragic, are a fraction of the 292,000 American battle deaths in World War II - about 0.6 per cent, in fact." 27

In conclusion, it can be said that the 21st century wars of the U.S. kill large numbers of innocent civilians relative to combatants (conforming with the trend begun in the 20th century) 28 and exhibit high lethality ratios for U.S. troops, particularly in Afghanistan. Factoring in medical, doctrinal, and technological improvements,

"... some supporters may continue to refer to [Iraq] casualties as `light', noting that typically tens of thousands of Americans must die in war before domestic support crumbles. Both miss the point. The casualty statistics make clear that our nation is involved in a war whose intensity on the ground matches that of previous American wars... Today's grunts are patrolling a battlefield every bit as deadly as the crucible their fathers faced in Southeast Asia." 29

The combination of elevated civilian casualties (Table 1) and the reality of asymmetric war have strengthened the resolve and effectiveness of the resistance. The outcome is predictable: the U.S. losing more wars but with increasing lethality ratios, adding another chapter in history's lesson as told by the prominent American historian Gabriel Kolko: "[The Pentagon] is superb at spending money but its way of warfare is now in a profound and perhaps terminal crisis. It has lost all its wars against persistent guerillas armed with cheap, light weapons that decentralise and hide." 30

Sophisticated arms are no match for AK-47-wielding, highly mobile rebels who need little training and know the local terrain better, very much the case in rural Afghanistan and urban Iraq. Some call this the new reality of small conflicts. As Larry Kahaner noted, such a sentiment was expressed by Maj. Gen. William Livsey, the commandant of Fort Benning, Ga., in the early 1980s, when the military was first integrating computer chips into smart weapons. "Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with,'' he warned, "you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It's the damn hardest thing in the world to do.'' 31

The first U.S. occupation soldier to die by hostile fire in Afghanistan on January 4, 2002 - Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) - was killed by a teenager shooting an AK-47. Five years later, the 301st U.S. occupation soldier to die, Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Phaneuf II, was killed in his armoured Humvee on December 15, 2006, by an improvised explosive device. On December 27, 2006, an Afghan child was killed by a NATO occupation soldier who fired upon a civilian vehicle near the Pol-e-Tarnak Bridge outside Kandahar, becoming the approximately 5,000th civilian death caused by U.S/NATO military action since the U.S. bombing began on October 7, 2001.

Marc W. Herold is in the Department of Economics, Whittemore School of Business & Economics, USA.


1. A difficulty exists here insofar as the U.S. military tries to minimise combat deaths and classifies some combat deaths as accidents. Some have questioned the accuracy of officially reported U.S. military deaths, as in Brian Harring, "US Military Report: The High Death Rates Exposed", (updated June 16, 2005) at and in "Still Lying about Real Iraq Deaths", (June 14, 2006) at

2. A well-established point wonderfully documented historically in Walter C. Clemens Jr. and David J. Singer, "The Human Cost of War", Scientific American 282, 6 (June 2000): 56-7 and also in William Eckhardt, "Civilian Deaths in Wartime", Bulletin of Peace Proposals (Great Britain) 20, 1 (1989): 89-98, which analyses the number and causes of civilian deaths in wartime during the period 1700-1987. I have documented the rising trend in civilian casualties from Vietnam to the Iraq in "Urban Dimensions of the Punishment of Afghanistan by US Bombs", in Stephen Graham (ed), Cities, War, and Terrorism. Towards an Urban Geopolitics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), Table 17.2 on page 316. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, as estimated 15,000-30,000 Soviet troops were killed, but the number of Afghans who perished has been estimated at 1.3 million out of a population of 17 million (Lawrence G. Kelley, "Afghanistan Revisited", Parameters, U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2000: 132-41 at As of the Vietnam War, body counts have become extremely politicised, for an excellent analysis see Margot Norris, "Military Censorship and the Body Count in the Persian Gulf War", Cultural Critique No.19 (Autumn 1991): 223-245. Today, the civilian death count in Iraq is hotly debated between Iraq Body Count and the Lancet. A thorough critique of the Lancet study and methodology has been made in Hamit Dardagan, John Sloboda and Josh Dougherty, "Reality Checks: Some Responses to the Latest Lancet Estimates" (London; Iraq Body Count Press Release 16, October 2006) at

3. At the website

4. Located at and The website is maintained by Michael White (details in "U.S. 'Joe Blow' Keeps Track of Iraq War Dead", Reuters (December 27, 2006) at http:/

5. A more serious problem in Afghanistan than in Iraq insofar as much of the U.S./NATO bombing and ground assaults take place in isolated regions and in Afghanistan, the aggressor nations have a much more perfected system of news management in place.

6. Analysed in Richard B. Andres, "Winning with Allies: The Strategic Value of the Afghan Model", International Security 30, 3 (Winter 2005/6): 124-160.

7. From Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, "Chapter Six. Legalities and Casualties", in A Short History of War. The Evolution of Warfare and Weapons (Carlisle Barracks, P.A.: Professional Readings in Military Strategy, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 30, 1992) at

8. Ibid. By way of comparison, in the battle on July 1, 1863, at Herbst's Woods during the Gettysburg campaign, a combined lethality ratio of 77 per cent was recorded for the combined Union and Confederate forces (see Steven J. Eden, "The War's Hottest Half Hour", Civil War Times 42,3 (2003):56-65).

9. Atul Gawande, "Casualties of War - Military Care for the Wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan", The New England Journal of Medicine 351, 24 (December 9, 2004): 2471-2475.

10. From Niall Ferguson, "The Next War of the Word", Foreign Affairs 85,5 (September/October, 2006).

11. Carlotta Gall, "As NATO Forces Ease Role of G.I's in Afghanistan, the Taliban Steps up Attacks", The New York Times (December 11, 2005). In mid-2006, foreign nations were contributing 3,100 troops to "Operations Enduring Freedom" and another 12,000 troops to the NATO force, for a total of 15,100.

12. A point I had made some three years ago in "The Taliban's Second Coming", (February 24, 2004) at See also "Afghanistan Said to be More Dangerous for US than Iraq in 2005", Associated Press (February 25, 2005) at Cooperative Research website, https://

13. In-theatre British troops during 2006 averaged 4,000 mostly in southern Afghanistan. During 2006, 25 British occupation forces were killed, to which should be added the 14 airmen who died when a British spy plane crashed. British casualties' data are from and During 2006, some 2,500 Canadian troops were stationed in Afghanistan. During the year, 36 Canadian soldiers were killed in hostile action, giving a lethality ratio of 14.4, that is, over three times that for U.S. soldiers. An outstanding analysis of Britains's evolving role in Afghanistan may be read at Bahlol Lohdi, "Blair's Folly. Britain's Afghan Quagmire", (December 28, 2006) at

14. I calculate that during the 10-year war, about 1,500 soldiers died each year. The size of the in-theatre Soviet force was 118,000 (1985) x 120,000 (1987), giving a lethality ratio of 12.5.

15. She found that five NATO soldiers were being killed each week, see "Afghanistan Deadlier for Coalition Troops than Iraq Study", CBC News (September 7, 2006) at

16. In August 2005, ISAF troops in Afghanistan numbered 11,000. During that year, 31 NATO occupation soldiers were killed.

17. About 15,000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan while 900,000 served there (see Mathew Fisher, "Afghan War Still Haunts Russian Vets", (December 27, 2006) at

18. As in Declan Walsh, "I knew Afghanistan would be Tough, but I didn't think it would be this Tough", Guardian (December 3, 2006) at,,1963357,00.html and in Catherine Philp, "They Expected an Easy Ride, then the Enemy Struck Back", The Times (July 30, 2005) at

19. An analysis of military combat outsourcing is provided in David Shearer, "Outsourcing War", Foreign Policy No. 112 (Autumn 1998): 68-81. The general topic of private military contracting is analysed in Joshua Kurlantzick, "Outsourcing the Dirty Work. The military and its reliance upon hired guns", American Prospect 14,5 (May 1, 2003) at and in P.W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 330 pp. On DynCorp, see Tod Robberson, "DynCorp has Big Role, Little Oversight in War Efforts", Dallas Morning News (December 24, 2006) at

20. Data from the Congressional Budget Office, "Chapter Two. The Army's Force Requirements for Various Missions", in Structuring the Active and Reserve Army in the Twenty-First Century (Washington D.C.: Congressional Budget Office, December 1997).

21. For example, in John Robb, "Global Guerrillas. Long-Tail Counter-Insurgency", Global (September 9, 2005) at https://globalguerrillas.typepad. com/globalguerrillas/2005/09long_tail_count.html

22. See, for example, for the Afghan case, David C. Isby, "Soft Targets in post-election Afghanistan", Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 2,23 (December 2, 2004) at

23. See Chalmers Johnson, "The Real Casualty Rate for America's Iraq Wars", (May 2, 2003) at htttp:// mhtml?pid=634

24.The source for this comparison is "U.S. Deaths in Iraq vs Vietnam: The Handoff", (November 5, 2006) at

25.From Jim Lindgreen, "1300 US Deaths Would be a Fairly Bad Month in Vietnam", the Volokh Conspiracy website (December 26, 2004) at

26.Derived from "Statistical Data on Strength and Casualties for Korean War and Vietnam" (Historical Manuscripts Collection (HMC), Office of the Chief of Military History, November 17, 1965) available at . The average annual in-theatre U.S. troop strength in Korea was 228,883 (December 1950 - July 1953), whereas the average annual in-theatre military deaths were 12,172 for that time period (or a monthly average of over 1,000).

27.Victor Davis Hanson, "Today's Politicos Invent the Past. When references to history are totally wrong", Tribune Media Services (August 1, 2005) at https://

28. For a more long-run perspective, see Eric Hobsbawm, "Barbarism: A User's Guide", New Left Review 206 (July-August 1994), John V. Denson, "A Century of War", (December 5, 2005) at and also Gwynne Dyer, War. The Legal Connection (New York, Carroll & Graf Publishers, revised edition 2005).

29.Details in Phillip Carter and Owen West, "Iraq 2004 Looks Like Vietnam, 1966. Adjusting Body Counts for Medical and Military Changes", (December 27, 2004) at

30.Gabriel Kolko, "Rumsfeld and the American Way of War", (December 26, 2006) at See also Jim Lobe, "A Bad Year for Empire", (December 23, 2006) at

31.In "Weapon Changed Pattern of Modern War", (December 29, 2006) at Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1167346213752&call_pageid=1024322168441&col=1024322596091

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