Numerous comparisons have been made between the current Iraq War and the Vietnam War, with some likening the two situations and others decrying the notion of any similarity. Some comparisons, including an analysis by Dr. Atul Gawande in the New England Journal of Medicine, show conclusively that improvements in medical technology have decreased the battlefield death rate significantly. Researching the statistics, Dr. Gawande shows that combat death rates from injury dropped from 30% during World War II to 24% during Vietnam, and to 10% in Iraq and Afghanistan. This decrease in mortality has been used to show that without modern medicine, American fatalities in Iraq would run at close to 2200 per year instead of the current 900 per year. But even at 2200 casualties per year, the Iraq conflict would pale in comparison to Vietnam, where on average 9000 American soldiers were killed each year during America’s heaviest presence (1966-1971).
While it might seem obvious, many commentators have ignored in their comparisons the simple fact that Vietnam is a much more populous country than Iraq. Unlike temporary invaders (or liberators), would-be nation-builders must establish security across a nation’s population; hence population is an important figure to weigh in any such estimation. Vietnam’s population today numbers 84 million, while Iraq’s population is 26 million, not quite a third that of Vietnam. An accurate comparison of the relative size of these nations involves comparing their population at the time of the respective conflicts with the US population at the time of that conflict. During the Vietnam War, the US population of 200 million (1968 estimate) was 5 times the Vietnam population of 40 million, while the current US population of 300 million is almost 12 times the population of Iraq. After adjusting for Iraq’s smaller population AND the advances in modern medicine, the Vietnam-comparable casualty rate for Iraq is 5300 per year. This number is still 40% lower than Vietnam’s casualty rate, showing that the current conflict is less dangerous for American soldiers on the whole.
Hawks and war planners should take note and consider the population comparisons, however. While the recent midterm elections have taken the initiative away from the hawks in Bush’s team, many still believe that war is the best option concerning Iran. Iran has nearly triple the population of Iraq, and unlike Iraq would more likely fight with a unified insurgency, since the population is not as divided along religious lines. Are hawks prepared to accept American military casualties above 3000 per year on a sustained basis? Perhaps they are, but the American people do not seem to be, having now tired of the much smaller Iraq conflict.