Thursday, December 02, 2004

What's in a number?

Numbers are funny things. Without context, they are nothing more than abstractions. But when attached to something concrete, they can be imbued with an overwhelming significance. Yet, before we can truly understand the significance of a number, we must truly understand the relationship between the abstraction and the real world. The process of uncovering this relationship is sometimes referred to as analysis. Without analysis (or without good analysis), numbers are empty and meaningless, often becoming a tool to justify whatever preconceived notion the presenter adheres to.

Speaking of great analysis, I point you to Brian Gifford's op-ed in the Washington Post (via Crooked Timber). In it, he discusses how casualty figures from Iraq are commonly understood in comparison to figures from Vietnam and World War II.

To better understand the difficulty of the fighting in Iraq, consider not just the current body count but the combat intensity of previous wars. During World War II, the United States lost an average of 300 military personnel per day. The daily figure in Vietnam was about 15. Compared with two per day so far in Iraq, the daily grinds of those earlier conflicts were worse than what our forces are currently experiencing.

On the other hand, improved body armor, field medical procedures and medevac capabilities are allowing wounded soldiers to survive injuries that would have killed them in earlier wars. In World War II there were 1.7 wounded for every fatality, and 2.6 in Vietnam; in Iraq the ratio of wounded to killed is 7.6. This means that if our wounded today had the same chances of survival as their fathers did in Vietnam, we would probably now have more than 3,500 deaths in the Iraq war.

Moreover, we fought those wars with much larger militaries than we currently field. The United States had 12 million active-duty personnel at the end of World War II and 3.5 million at the height of the Vietnam War, compared with just 1.4 million today. Adjusted for the size of the armed forces, the average daily number of killed and wounded was 4.8 times as many in World War II than in Iraq, but it was only 0.25 times greater in Vietnam — or one-fourth more.

These figures suggest that our forces in Iraq face a far more serious threat than the public, the media and the political establishment typically acknowledge or understand. Man for man, a soldier or Marine in Iraq faces a mission nearly as difficult as that in Vietnam a generation earlier. This is in spite of the fact that his contemporary enemies do not field heavy armored vehicles or aircraft and do not enjoy the support and patronage of a superpower such as the Soviet Union. …

In other words, when the comparison between conflicts is made, it is apples to oranges not apples to apples. Solid analysis, like this one, destroys the myth that the Iraq War is "no Vietnam". Clearly, the Iraq situation is hell on Earth, even if the bodies don't stack up as quickly as they have in other wars.

And this doesn't even begin to address the fact that we rarely discuss the "merely" injured or the civilian casualties when attempting to assess the seriousness of the war. But, at least it's a step in the right direction.
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