I’m a big fan of The Atlantic, but they do step into it every so often, and they did this month in a big way in a story that paints a bleak view of trends in Iraq (part of a trend as they seem to be taking a more negative line on the war).
Man Versus Mine: Iraqi insurgents have perfected the use of lethal explosives, with profound implications for our military operations in Iraq
In Iraq the insurgents are using similar weapons against U.S. forces. Today they are called IEDs—for “improvised explosive devices”—rather than mines, and the insurgents are targeting automobiles rather than trains. But the effect is just as devastating.
The number of mines being used in Iraq, and the share of casualties for which they are responsible, dwarf anything ever before seen by the American military. During World War II three percent of U.S. combat deaths were caused by mines or booby traps. In Korea that figure was four percent. By 1967, during the Vietnam War, it was nine percent, and the Pentagon began experimenting with armored boots. From June to November of 2005, IEDs were responsible for 65 percent of American combat deaths and roughly half of all nonfatal injuries.
They present us with this graph (my version, with data from icasualties.org), which shows the percent of casualties (deaths) caused by IED’s by month:
Looks horrible, no? The percentage is high and rising, and obviously our troops are in unmanageable peril.
The growing use of IEDs is forcing America’s military strategists to rethink centuries of military doctrine holding that in warfare, mobility equals dominance. Votel told me that given the success that IEDs have had against America’s fleet of motor vehicles, the Pentagon may need to switch to more foot patrols. An intelligence analyst working on the IED problem agreed, saying, “The answer to the IEDs is to leave the vehicles. It’s obvious. It’s the only choice.” But such a move would expose U.S. soldiers to other risks, including snipers. And the December detonation of an IED in Fallujah, killing ten Marines on foot patrol, shows that soldiers will remain vulnerable to IEDs whether on foot or behind the wheel. As long as the insurgents can use IEDs to inflict damage on U.S. soldiers without ever engaging them directly, they will have a tactical advantage. “Our whole military is based on the idea of overwhelming firepower put on targets,” says William S. Lind, a noted military theorist who has written extensively on asymmetric warfare. “But that doesn’t work in this type of conflict. We are fighting an enemy that has made himself untargetable.” Therefore, Lind says, the insurgents can continue fighting the American military in Iraq indefinitely—regardless of how many U.S. troops are deployed or how quickly they are massed.
Fear and uncertainty, of course, ultimately breed mistrust. That may be the most damaging aspect of the IEDs: they prey on American minds, making soldiers suspicious of the local population and ultimately isolating them.
For Lind and other military theorists, the IED problem in Iraq is insoluble no matter how much time or money is spent. “If we can’t engage the enemy,” he says, “what do we do? The answer is, we lose.”
Somehow I was kind of leery of this conclusion.
So I looked at the author’s credits.
Robert Bryce is the author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron and Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate.
Somehow, I don’t see him at a BBQ at Crawford any time soon. And Lind is an interesting character as well, worth some scrutiny as a far-right acolyte of John Boyd who posts on the Lew Rockwell site.
So here’s my first point. The war in Iraq – and the wider war it may presage – is a critically important issue that ought to be treated with some intellectual honesty.
Being a Bush partisan whether pro- or anti- and sifting data to look for the nuggets that support your position is basically being a scrivener – a reader of entrails. We need to look as hard as we can for facts.
So let’s look at the facts presented.
My first thought was that the graph represented deaths/month, in which case it was deeply serious. Then I noticed (in the magazine, it’s a small graph – maybe one column wide) that it was the % of deaths caused by IED’s.
So, in theory, in a month when one soldier died from an IED, we’d be talking about a 100% rate.
Which implies that as the operational cadence changes and fewer soldiers are exposed in combat, if the number dying from IED’s were to just stay constant, the percent would spike, as we see.
So I dug out some other numbers.
Here are the deaths from IED’s against all deaths. Note that the pecent of IED deaths spikes in Sept-Oct of 05 at over 80%. Note that the absolute number of deaths in that period was relatively low, under 50. 40 of them were from IED attacks, hence the spike.
So look at the graph of two numbers – yes, the trend for IED deaths rose slightly through late 05 (and has dropped off steeply since then). But the trend of overall deaths was trending downward at the same time – hence the rise in the % of deaths.
There’s really no other word for what the authors have done – and the Atlantic has condoned – except fraud. I say fraud, which is deliberate, rather than error, which is unintentional, because anyone smart enough to make graphs is smart enough to look at the numbers and come to the same conclusion I came to.
But that doesn’t fit the author’s need to explain why our cause is doomed and why “The answer is, we lose.”
I’m ashamed of the author – who scrives when he should be thinking – and I’m deeply ashamed of the Atlantic, which knows better.
There are real issues about how we’re doing in Iraq and what we ought to do. The Atlantic should be leading the way in asking hard questions to drive that discussion, instead of examining entrails by committing junior-high-school acts of innumeracy.