Iraq Casualty Rate Declining


American casualties have been steadily declining since they peaked last November (414, including 82 dead). The casualties went down to 306 in December, 234 in January and 167 last month. In February there were twenty American soldiers killed in action, or .79 per day. This was the first month, since the war began, that the troops killed fell to less than one a day.

The reason for the decline in casualties are numerous. Probably the most important one has been the improvements in tactics and training. American troops have developed the habit of carefully studying actual operations, and quickly brainstorming possible solutions for problems encountered. Pretty much anything goes, and officers and troops are encouraged to use their imagination and initiative to come up with new ways of doing things. Each division also has a “discretionary fund” of money that can be spent on equipment and weapons that the army does not normally buy. These attitudes, which are rare in military organizations, have produced dozens of new tactics and techniques for dealing with roadside bombs and ambushes. Even though the Iraqi resistance was quickly changing their tactics, the troops have been faster, and more effective.

Reducing the number of attacks, or decreasing their effectiveness, by capturing attackers, or arresting those planning to do so, has been very important. It has taken time, but month by month, coalition forces have developed informer networks and better knowledge of who the attackers are. Month by month the number of attackers, and attacks, declined, or shifted their activities to Iraqis (who are less likely to shoot back.) The pressure of the American investigations has made it more difficult to recruit attackers, and increased the payments demanded by many of the attackers. A lot of Sunni Arabs, the usual participants in these attacks, simply won’t take on American troops any more. Too many attackers have been caught in the act and killed. Making attacks at night is particularly scary for Iraqis, because of the abundance of night vision devices the Americans have, and use enthusiastically. Moreover, at night you cannot see the UAVs circling overhead with their night vision videocam pointed earthward.

A more publicized reason for lower casualties was the increased use of armored vehicles and better body armor on the troops. This has had a much smaller impact on the casualty rate, because if you are attacked, the armored vehicle saves lives, but still exposes a lot of troops to injury (although less serious wounds.) But the better and more abundant armor is also good for morale. This is important, because serving in a combat zone is very stressful.

Iraqi security forces are being equipped with the same ideas and equipment, so that they can go after the attackers as well. The only problem here is finding enough Iraqis who are willing to think and act as energetically as the American troops do. Most Iraqi cops are pretty defensive, and for the last few decades, only Sunni Arabs of the ruling class were encouraged to use their imagination and initiative. Anyone else doing that got arrested, or killed outright. Old habits are hard to change.

This is quite interesting and signals yet another phase in defense transformation and the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. Since time immemorial, military bureaucracies have resisted letting individual units procure their own gear, since it goes against the very concept of uniformity. But in a fluid, unfamiliar environment it makes perfect sense to let each unit serve as a mini-laboratory, passing on lessons identified through the chain. What better way to find out what works–and what does work?

FILED UNDER: Environment, Iraq War, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hal says:

    I think the biggest reason is that they shifted targets. 240+ dead just the other day, dozens more killed over the last month. Countless wounded (countless because we don’t seem to publish the statistics). So the actual number of deaths has risen dramatically recently – the deaths are just not mostly US soldiers.

  2. Paul says:

    Hal they have been doing this for months and they are now seeing the results. Obviously they are not reacting to something that happened last week.

    I really wonder if you read what is posted before you comment.

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