Letters to the editor

Iraq and the Insurgency

In “Man Versus Mine” (January/February Atlantic), Robert Bryce manages to contort a single statistic—65 percent of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq are due to mines/IEDs (improvised explosive devices)—into a recipe for American defeat. He never considers a reasonable alternative explanation for this unusual statistic—namely, that Iraqi insurgents simply lack the capability to inflict significant casualties on Americans without using mines.

There is little doubt that modern wireless technology has made mines more effective, but Bryce badly overstates his case. He notes, for example, that only 9 percent of American combat deaths in Vietnam in 1967 were due to mines. That year, American forces suffered approximately 9,400 combat deaths, with about three times the forces we have engaged in Iraq. Adjusting for the size of our Iraq force, that figure is the equivalent of about 3,100 combat deaths. Of these, according to the author’s 9 percent figure, approximately 300 combat deaths would have been due to mines. In reality, American forces suffered 845 combat deaths in Iraq during 2004, of which, according to Bryce, about 550 were due to mines. This is a significant increase, but the article implies a difference in orders of magnitude rather than an arithmetic progression. Per the size of the force engaged (the only thing that really matters), mines are only marginally more dangerous to American forces in Iraq than they were in Vietnam.

More significantly, in Vietnam (and previous conflicts) the enemy forces were able to inflict casualties on American forces at a much higher rate than in Iraq. They accomplished this with a wider variety of weapons and a much broader range of tactics than Iraqi insurgents. Communist forces in Vietnam pressed offensives, successfully ambushed large American units, besieged American bases, and denied allied forces access to entire provinces. But other than suicide-bomb attacks against the civilian populace and mine attacks on American supply lines, Iraqi insurgents can only inflict significant casualties on American forces when we choose to attack them, as at Fallujah in 2004. And then they can count on taking greatly disproportionate casualties.

Bryce also makes a number of factual errors. He notes the Iraqi use of shaped charges in mines, and claims that these “fire armor-piercing conical projectiles.” While armor-piercing projectiles (like rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs) might have a shaped charge, when used in a mine it is the charge itself that is cone-shaped. The mine, like all mines, remains immobile, and its effect is entirely dependent on a vehicle rolling over it (or right next to it). Bryce says that foot patrols might deter mine operations, but then notes that a Marine foot patrol suffered ten dead when it was hit by a mine in December 2005. In fact, the Marines were attending a promotion ceremony, in a dangerous area, and were sitting ducks. He asserts that IEDs are forcing “America’s military strategists to rethink centuries of military doctrine holding that in warfare, mobility equals dominance.” Any serious military strategist knows that military dominance requires a balance of mobility, firepower, and protection. And besides, even if this formulation were correct, it is the insurgents who are essentially immobile, not American forces.

In his conclusion, Bryce solicits the opinion of William Lind, a controversial military theorist who is a vociferous opponent of the war in Iraq and a harsh critic of the Pentagon. Lind’s claim that Iraqi insurgents are “untargetable” is just false. We target and hit them all the time. It is American forces that are difficult for the insurgents to target, save by placing immobile mines along roadways. To use Bryce’s own example, T. E. Lawrence mined Ottoman rail lines as an adjunct to mobile raiding with an army, and he had British conventional forces operating in support of him. Iraqi insurgents lack such operational mobility and support. They can only effectively hit American forces with mines.

Can we lose the war in Iraq? Of course, especially if the American people lose confidence in our effort there. But what better way to shatter the public’s confidence than with careless reporting and tendentious analysis?

Jonathan F. Keiler
Bowie, Md.

I was astonished to read, on page 37 of the January/February issue, Benjamin Schwarz’s acceptance (“The Perils of Primacy”) of the Pentagon’s assertion that U.S. “military preponderance now embraces the entire ‘spectrum of conflict’ … [such that] we’re miles ahead of everyone in every type of warfare,” and then, seven pages later, Robert Bryce’s assertion that “military analysts and active-duty soldiers doubt that the threat posed by IEDs can be neutralized anytime soon.”

Leaving aside the apparent editorial oversight in allowing these contradictory statements to appear virtually side by side in the magazine, it is a frightening notion that the U.S. military—supposedly the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the history of the world—is severely threatened by and incapable of defeating a disorganized, underfunded, non-statist group of random individuals armed only with homemade bombs. It’s a crime against U.S. taxpayers, and a testament to the incompetence of the war’s planners, that all our multimillion-dollar missiles, planes, ships, tanks, and the rest are useless against a hundred dollars’ worth of wires and dynamite.

Paul Tullis
New York, N.Y.

Robert Bryce’s article makes two things clear: the U.S. military is still fixated on technology to the exclusion of anything else to solve tactical problems, and it still doesn’t understand counterinsurgency. The only way to defeat IEDs is by using clear-and-hold tactics and by controlling the population along the roads.

After the traumatic experience of Vietnam, the U.S. military quietly erased from its institutional memory the hard-won counterinsurgency techniques learned in the 1950s and 1960s by the British and French. Until it relearns these mid-twentieth-century concepts and adapts them to the twenty-first century struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, young Americans will continue to be killed and maimed needlessly in fruitless convoys and mounted patrols.

Lieutenant Colonel Terence J. Daly, U.S. Army Reserves (Retired)
San Francisco, Calif.

Robert Bryce replies:

Mr. Keiler points out that America isn’t losing as many soldiers (on a proportional basis) in Iraq as we did in Vietnam. True. But he cannot refute the fact that the percentage of Americans killed or injured by IEDs in Iraq exceeds anything ever seen before. The latest Army statistics show that four times more GIs are being hurt by explosions (i.e., IEDs, RPGs, etc.) than by gunshots. For all his indignant fury, Keiler ignores the main effect that IEDs have had on the U.S. military in Iraq: they have forced the Defense Department into a reactive mode, forced it to spend billions of dollars on countermeasures—armor, high-tech sensors, etc.—and still our soldiers are being blown up on an almost daily basis. The crux of Keiler’s attack hangs on his contention that the insurgents are unable to cause “significant casualties” on American forces by using IEDs. Hundreds of American soldiers have been killed by IEDs, and thousands have been wounded by them. By any definition, that’s “significant.”

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