As the global war on
terrorism enters its fifth year and American troops continue to
fight and die abroad, there is a growing tendency to frame the
discussion about troop deployments in the context of wars
past, particularly the Vietnam conflict (1965- 1973). Such
comparisons, while natural, are more likely than not to produce
flawed analysis. Each war is unique, and any comparison to other
wars invariably suffers from oversimplification. With respect
to troop deployments and casualties, comparing the Iraq War with
the Vietnam conflict will demonstrate more differences than
Simply put, there are
far fewer U.S. troops in Iraq today than there were in Vietnam in
the late 1960s, and there are far fewer casualties. Second, troop
levels are more stable in Iraq. Third, the duration of
deployments cannot be compared because U.S. engagement with
Iraq has been shorter, and the Iraq conflict is open-ended.
Overall, American strategy in Iraq is less reliant on military
muscle and more focused on the political and economic aspects of
fighting a counterinsurgency. Focusing on political and
economic development is the superior strategy, but success will
require patience and endurance.
Troop Deployments Then
In Vietnam, the United
States employed a flawed strategy referred to as "graduated
pressure." The idea behind this was that increasing levels of
military force, applied incrementally, could ultimately push the
North Vietnamese to some abstract breaking point, achieving victory
for the U.S. and South Vietnam. The strategy focused on
minimizing costs rather than winning the war, relied on faulty
assumptions about the enemy's psychology, and, most of all, offered
no real solutions about how to defeat the Communists other than
essentially throwing more troops at the problem.
By contrast, U.S. troop
levels in Iraq have remained relatively constant for four
years. Throughout the conflict, there have been occasional
fluctuations in the number of troops, particularly to provide
better security for the Iraqi elections, yet annual levels
have held steady at roughly 130,000.
During the Vietnam
conflict, U.S. troop strength increased dramatically during
the first four years, growing by 100,000 extra troops per year and
peaking in 1968 at 537,377. In
contrast, around the time of the January 2005 Iraqi elections,
the number of U.S. troops participating in Operation Iraqi
Freedom reached its peak at approximately 159,000. During
the third year of the Vietnam conflict (1967), the number of U.S.
troops stationed there was 451,752-more than three times the number
of troops stationed in Iraq today. (See
military is much smaller today than it was during Vietnam. In 1967,
the total military force, active and reserve components
combined, was just over 3.4 million. Almost 30 percent of the total
number of U.S. troops were stationed overseas, compared to 27
percent in 2005-similar percentages of vastly different-sized
operational tempo as a result of the war on terrorism places great
stress on the troops and their families, the numbers show that the
current situation is not unusual in a time of war. The strain
has been greatest on the National Guard and Reserves, but that is
in large part because organizational changes in the Department
of Defense that were prompted by the Vietnam conflict place a much
greater reliance on the Guard and Reserves today than was the case
Troop Levels and
Over 2,500 U.S. service
personnel have been killed in Iraq. These deaths are both heroic
and tragic, but the total is dwarfed by the number of fatal
casualties in the Vietnam conflict, which topped 58,000 by the time
the last U.S. troops withdrew. While
the war in Iraq certainly presents challenges, the bloodshed has
not reached the same level. A report by the U.S. Army's Strategic
Studies Institute comparing the Iraq and Vietnam wars concludes
that from 1965 to 1973 an average of 134 American military
personnel were killed in Vietnam every week. In
contrast, the bloodiest month in Iraq saw fewer deaths of U.S.
troops when 126 soldiers died in both April and November of 2004. That the
average week in Vietnam was deadlier than the worst month in Iraq
is a triumph of the force protection efforts of the Pentagon.
Yet it is even more a symbol of a significantly smaller
As a percentage of the
total number of troops deployed, the numbers of U.S. soldiers
killed in Iraq and Vietnam are comparable. A deployment of 8.7
million U.S. troops in Vietnam, relative to 58,000 fatalities,
yields a ratio of seven-tenths of 1 percent. In comparison, the
Iraq figures to date are approximately 500,000 deployments and
2,500 fatalities, a ratio of five-tenths of 1 percent.
What This Means for
Iraq is not Vietnam. The war
in Iraq, some 40 years after the Vietnam conflict, is different
both quantitatively and qualitatively. In the late 1960s and early
1970s, the ranks of the U.S. military were filled with draftees;
now they are filled exclusively with volunteers. In the 1960s,
policymakers focused on body counts of the enemy; now they focus on
the deaths of our own troops.
Both of these measures
miss the point. What should matter to Americans is the mission to
secure freedom abroad, because that is why our troops join and
serve. However, troop numbers do inform us and dispel some
First, although troop levels
have held steady in Iraq for four years, the political winds in
Congress have shifted from calling for more troops to calling for
fewer troops. It is likely that U.S. troop levels in Iraq will
decline as the war enters its fifth year.
by a ratio of
nearly 3:1, there are fewer U.S. troops stationed overseas today
than there were during the Vietnam conflict, even though the
percentage of troops abroad compared to the total force is similar.
This shows that the American military's footprint is smaller
today, contrary to the myth of a new imperial posture.
Third, Iraq is not a meat
grinder, nor is it more deadly than Vietnam. The number of U.S.
troop deaths as a proportion of the total number to have served in
Iraq is comparable to what it was in Vietnam. Though all wars
are dangerous and troops endure many hardships, the argument that
Iraq is especially deadly is not supported by the data. The data
may, ironically, describe an overemphasis on force protection at
the expense of cultural engagement.
pressure, the U.S. effort in Iraq places far less emphasis on
numbers of troops. Even though there have been mistakes along the
way, there has been a greater focus on the political aspect of the
counterinsurgency in Iraq than there was in Vietnam.
The most important
thing for Americans to remember about the Iraq War is that the vast
majority of U.S. military personnel are serving admirably. Sadly,
more than 2,500 have been killed, but they have rid the world of a
murderous dictatorship that was determined to acquire weapons
of mass destruction; they
have killed and captured thousands of terrorists; and they
have helped a fledgling democracy to beat the odds and secure roots
in the Middle East. They have done all this in the face of great
adversity and in a restrained manner that should make
Ph.D., is Director of the Center for International
Trade and Economics, and David D. Gentilli is a Research Assistant
in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
According to the
Department of Defense, the total number of U.S. service personnel
killed in Vietnam is 58,209. See U.S. Department of Defense,
"Principal Wars in Which the United States Participated: U.S.
Military Personnel Serving and Casualties," at /static/reportimages/84785D505E7296FFA213D37513E962E5.pdf
(July 5, 2006).
Calculation made by the
authors based on Department of Defense statistics. For the casualty
figures and the number of troops that served in Vietnam, see U.S.
Department of Defense, "Principal Wars in Which the United States
Participated: U.S. Military Personnel Serving and Casualties."
For figures on the number of troops to have served in Iraq, see Tim
Kane, "Global U.S. Troop Deployment, 1950-2005," Heritage
Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA06-02, May
24, 2006, at
For casualty figures from the Iraq War, see U.S. Department of
Defense, "Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) U.S. Casualty Status,
Fatalities as of: July 5, 2006," at /static/reportimages/680F4CDDAD7DD644C11653CA91BC00B2.pdf
(July 5, 2006).
Report of the Special Advisor to the Director of Central
Intelligence on Iraq's WMD (informally called the Duelfer
Report), September 30, 2004, at http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/iraq_wmd_2004/chap1.html
(July 5, 2006). In its section on Regime Strategic Intent, the
report discusses Saddam's WMD aspirations.