“We’re going to bring everybody back.” How often have you heard a commander say that?
How often have you heard comparisons of casualty counts between OEF/OIF and Vietnam? In about the same timeframe, we’ve suffered 5,312 combat deaths and 1,434 non-combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, as compared to 58,300 combat and non-combat deaths in Vietnam. This is universally pointed to as a good thing. (Unless you are politically opposed to the administration in office at the time, in which case ever single death is highlighted as the personal fault of the politicians of the opposing party. More on this later.)
But is the ultimate goal when you go to war to minimize your own casualties? If it is, you may as well not go to war at all. War is lethal violence applied against an opposing party to force them to your will. The other party will be applying, or attempting to apply, the same lethal violence to force you to their will. This means people are going to die, on both sides. If you cannot stomach that from the get-go, don’t go to war.
There’s a word for that, especially when the other side fired the first shot: Surrender.
Minimizing casualties has become an obsession in the US military. Most of the reason for this is politics and careerism (which are two sides of the same coin). Eighteen combat deaths were enough to cause the US to withdraw from Somalia in 1993, mainly because the administration believed that losing soldiers in combat was going to make them look bad politically. The result has poisoned combat leadership, as the officers who came up during that time have become the senior leadership now. Too many casualties are bad for your career, so avoid them if at all possible.
This has metastasized to the point of platoon sergeants checking that every man in the platoon has every single piece of higher-mandated PPE, right down to the proper gloves (even if the nomex gloves tend to disintegrate in about a week of hard use).
This risk aversion has led to three major problems on the operational level: micromanagement and the death of small-unit leader initiative; increasingly immobilizing weight from protective requirements; and the death of maneuver.
The above example of the platoon sergeant confirming that everyone in the platoon has all their PPE is a shining example of micromanagement. Making sure that everyone has the kit they’re supposed to have should fall on fire-team and squad leaders at most (team leaders in Recon). The platoon sergeant has other things to focus on. The platoon commander even more so. But officers and SNCOs are now so terrified of somebody under them getting wounded or killed, and it reflecting badly on their career, that they have to personally check everyone. Then they have to personally make sure everyone is in the right place. Then…it just goes on, until you’ve got squad leaders who aren’t there to lead, but to fill a billet. This leads to paralysis on a small-unit level. Little things become big things.
Personal Protective Equipment has become the hobgoblin of every branch. The most laughable bit (that is most commonly mocked, yet still is required with a religious zealotry by the senior NCO mafia) is the reflective belt. But while the “fag belt” is ridiculous, where it gets damaging is armor. As mentioned above, for political reasons, the opposition around the beginning of OIF started screaming in the press about how the military wasn’t getting enough body armor.
As an equally cynical political ploy, to demonstrate that the administration did indeed care oh so much about the lives of the troops, an enormous amount of money and effort went into body armor, and it hasn’t slowed down. SAPI plates became ESAPI plates, then side SAPIs were added, then side ESAPIs. The percentage of the body that was required to be covered in Kevlar got larger and larger. And the weight and constriction just went up and up.
And don’t you dare suggest that this was, in fact, crippling the infantry who had to wear it. Not only did it slow us down and restrict our movement (when you begin to lose circulation in your arms while moving in full body armor with a ruck, you’d better hope and pray that you don’t get hit until you can drop the ruck and be able to use your hands again), but it is breaking down the infantryman’s body faster. The numbers of us with lower back problems are just going up.
How are you supposed to maneuver against an opponent dressed in man-jammies, tennis shoes, and an AK (with maybe a minimal ChiCom chest rig) when you’re carrying 2/3 of your bodyweight or more? I don’t care how much of a stud you are, you’re not going to keep up with Johnny Jihad like that. And so, maneuver dies. Firefights become not a chess match of fire and movement, but a game of hunker down and throw as much firepower in the general direction of the enemy as possible until they stop shooting at you.
The fact that you’re still there and they’re not afterward is chalked up as a win. But how many were actually killed? What was actually accomplished?
Furthermore, that fear of casualties will often lead an officer or SNCO to pull back an element that does in fact try to maneuver on the enemy. They might be out of the officer’s control, and somebody might get hurt or killed, and that would reflect badly on his “leadership.”
Much of the technological boondoggles I discussed in the last entry of this series have been devoted to trying to bypass the age-old truth that it is infantry that win wars. The “push button war,” fought by air power and robots, is the dream of those who want to avoid casualties and fight wars neatly and cleanly, without any damage to their political careers (and yes, I’m including general officers along with civilian politicians). That way they don’t have to face the American people and tell them that something is worth the deaths of their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. That there are in fact national interests worth fighting and dying for.
This insistence on “neat,” “clean” wars have resulted in half-assed, nasty brush wars without end, fought with less and less tactical acumen as the infantry who ultimately must fight it become paralyzed by their leadership and the armor that’s supposed to keep them “safe” in a profession that is by its very nature anything but.
As a last note of clarification, as there are those who will react strongly to the notion that any of us are “expendable.” Well, yes, when you boil it down, when we volunteered we made ourselves expendable. Show me an infantryman who signed up thinking he couldn’t die in combat, and I’ll show you a fool.
That said, spending lives profligately is still stupid and unforgivable. There are a few units (which shall remain nameless) that have reputations for doing stupid stuff tactically downrange, and they have the casualty counts to prove it.
There is a difference between near-mindless aggressiveness that gets men killed for no good reason, and the somber acknowledgement that the objective is valuable enough that men will have to die to accomplish it. It is a fine moral line, but one that must be walked, for to fall on either side of it is to abandon the moral obligations of the leader to both his men and to the for which country he fights.