Friday, June 24, 2011

Medical technology making Iraq look less bloody

This 2010 report for the US Congress compares various American wars in terms of deaths and injuries suffered by the American military.

For example, 116,516 American soldiers died in World War I, with 204,022 wounded. This is a deaths/wounded ratio of 1:1.8. By World War II war had become more fatal to American soldiers, killing 405,399 and wounding 670,846, a ratio of 1:1.65. A few other wars by deaths/wounded ratios:

Korean War 1:2.8
Vietnam War 1:2.6
Persian Gulf War 1:1.2
Afghanistan War 1:4.4
Iraq War 1:7.3

We see a dramatic shift in the ratio of deaths to wounded, with far fewer troops dying by comparison with those injured. In World War II for every one man killed barely another was wounded. By the Iraq War for every one man killed another seven were wounded.

This makes sense if we consider that emergency medical technology has improved over the period. Injuries which would have killed soldiers in the past are today treated with high tech medicine, leaving soldiers alive.

Another implication is that modern wars may seem less serious than earlier conflicts simply because soldiers are now surviving horrible injuries. In the Iraq War 31,430 American troops were wounded, while 4,301 were killed. If this conflict had the same death/wounded ratio as World War II the US would be dealing with 19,048 deaths, making it appear a much more bloody struggle.


  1. I think you also need to take into consideration that when the US were fighting the Germans and Japanese (mainly those two) they were fighting well trained, well organised and well equipped armies who had weapons to match their own, and, in some categories even superior weaponry. The Iraqi army was a joke by comparison. The Americans practically strolled into Baghdad. The axis powers in the 1940s did not make it so easy. In Iraq American soldiers are being killed by guerillas with tactics consisting mainly of suicide bomb attacks or numerous kinds of IED attack (cars, trucks, roadside etc.) They only inflict one or two fatal casualties on the Americans every now and again. In World War 2 the enemy was a much fiercer adversary. The death toll was high not due to the lack of medical technology alone but more significantly because of the the evenness in fire power, organisation, size and strategies between the forces at war. In my opinion anyway.

    That's not to say of course that modern medical technology is not saving lives. Of course it is. And for civilians too. The technology available to soldiers who have lost limbs for instance is remarkable. Artificial limbs can provide them with mobility and the dexterity to manipulate the environment around them. Okay, they're not going to be concert pianists but it makes the concept of the 6 million dollar man look like child's play - well, nearly.

  2. Well the 30,000 wounded show that militia in Iraq can HIT the Americans, if not kill them. There are a bunch of other possible reasons for this. I've heard of landmines designed specifically to maim soldiers instead of killing them (because a wounded soldier is more expensive to care for than a dead soldier). Could militia in Iraq have designed IEDs to deliberately maim Americans instead of killing them? I've no idea.

    One of the other things I wondered about was whether "wounded" has the same definition now as it did back in the 1940s. I have a vague mental image of a 1940s soldier arriving back at base minus an arm insisting that "it's just a scratch"!

    But it does seem likely that medical technology, body armour and generally improved systems of combat have made injuries less lethal than in the past. I read once that major improvements in emergency medical practices occurred during the Vietnam War.

    This also has implications for homicide statistics. If the number of homicides appear to fall over time, it could be because victims of terrible assaults are living today, when they would have died in the past.

  3. Just a scratch! Presumably then a disembowelment was just a spot of indigestion!

    Yes it certainly those seem likely that modern medical technologies are making serious injuries less lethal. But I still wouldn't give it all the credit (not that you are) when considering the Iraq war.

    First, even if you say that it might be possible that the militia are deliberately maiming soldiers instead of killing them, then that would have to be considered as a factor when explaining the kill/wound ratio, i.e, it would still weaken the perceived affect (and I don't necessarily want it to) medicine is having.

    Secondly, and I don't mean to repeat myself, the ability of the enemy to kill is very important here. A comparison between Iraq and WW2 (although of course it wasn't the only comparison made) is not really comparing like with like. Yes, if they had the medical expertise and technology we have now during that conflict a lot more lives would have been saved. At the same time, if the Iraqi army/militia was not so impotent (by German/Japanese standards) in the face of a far superior army, then they would have killed a lot more Americans (and British and others) than they have by now.

    Interesting thought on homicide.

  4. Yeah I guess Nazi Germany was pretty good at the ole killin' :P

    Well yet another complication is that various militia in Iraq might not have been focusing on Americans at all. Far more Iraqis have died - tens, possibly hundreds of thousands - so killing Americans might not have been a priority. But anyway! You get my drift :P

  5. Wounded soldier: "My intestines have been blown out"

    Florence Nightingale: "Here, have some Gaviscon"

  6. I'm using Facebook too much, because I want to "like this" :P

  7. Interesting thing you said about homicide. Medicine has not just saved lives, but perhaps has also reduced the sentence of a potential murder convict. Or even saved more lives in places where capital punishment exists!

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