The True Risk of Death in War
Statistics and absolute numbers can’t determine the risk of death of an individual on the battlefield.
You can fight in a war with relatively few casualties on your side (like the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan) and still get killed. On the other hand, your whole unit might be wiped out in the bloodiest of conflicts and you are the only survivor.
Important “relative”, non quantifiable risk factors are:
Type of war:
In a Guerrilla campaign, the insurgents usually have higher losses than the counterinsurgency forces. At least in the beginning, the government forces are stronger than their opponents. This is why you start a guerrilla campaign: you don’t have enough forces for a conventional war! Usually, a counterinsurgent force also has the technical superiority over the Guerrilla which is another factor to explain their low(er) casualty numbers.
The Kosovo Liberation Army, for example, lost 18.7 % of its soldiers on the battlefield (17,500 soldiers, 3269 killed), while their enemy, the Serbian counterinsurgency forces, only lost 1.43 % of theirs (105,000 soldiers, 1500 killed).
In conventional wars, the casualty numbers between the different militaries involved are usually closer together and it doesn’t even matter which side has lost and which one has won the war:
During Operation Barbarossa in WWII, the Soviets lost around 34 % of their soldiers (2.9 million soldiers, 1 million killed) fighting against the Germans, while the Germans with their Allies lost 26% of their soldiers (3.8 million soldiers, 1 million killed) on the Eastern front.
Surprisingly, many combat soldiers do not die in firefights with the enemy, but in other combat related activities on the battlefield. A good example is the number of Navy SEALs and personal attached to them that got killed in Afghanistan:
From the 55 Navy Seals killed in Afghanistan , only 12 soldiers (or 21%) were killed through combat related injuries, but much more (33 soldiers or 78%) lost their lives for a number of very different reasons:
- 1 suicide
- 1 drowned in a river during a combat operation
- 3 died through IED’s, mines or non specified explosions
- 16 were helicopter crash victims
- 22 died when their CH-47 helicopter was shot down by an enemy RPG
We can see that most soldiers died while they were transported in helicopters (38 SEALs or 69%). In the same time, only three SEALs were killed while travelling in jeeps or Armored Personnel Carriers. In war, tactics are often changed, because of the high number of casualties they “produce”.
Especially important are “defensive tactics” like anti sniper tactics which, if properly applied, can save a lot of lives.
To have correct and actionable intelligence available on the battlefield does not only make it easier to detect and kill the enemy, but also helps to avoid dangerous situations for your own troops, like ambushes, planned enemy attacks etc.
Type of unit:
If you are infantry, you can expect that your risk to get killed is higher than that of an artillery or logistics soldier, but not in every conflict. In many wars and especially in counterinsurgency campaigns there might be an equally number of killed soldiers in support units than with combat troops.
This can be explained with the character of the conflict. A Guerrilla army attacks where the enemy is weakest and a supply transport makes a much easier target than a well protected armored column near the frontline.
Special forces, Quick Reaction forces, but also volunteer units have the highest casualty rates. This is due to the dangerous character of their assignments, but also because more “courage and engagement” is expected from them than from other units.
Armored cars, Mine resistant vehicles, body armor, but also mine detecting equipment, ground radars and night vision equipment help keeping casualty numbers low. As I already mentioned, technical superiority also helps to reduce the number of your losses.
A well trained soldier has a higher chance to survive on the battlefield. A trained and well coordinated unit is more effective and will suffer fewer losses.
Especially important in this regard is specialized pre-deployment training and training in the deployment zones. The better and longer the training, the lower the number of casualties.
In combat the first weeks are the most dangerous. Even with the best training and preparation, there are things that can be learned only “on the job”. After a while, the soldiers become familiar with the battlefield and with their enemy and start to develop instincts that will help them to make the right decisions.
Military leaders always have to balance between their mission objective and the risk for their soldiers. This can vary, even in the same battalion or company. If you are too careful, you will never reach your objective, but on the other hand who dares does not always win.
During World War II, many German Army and Waffen SS units were led by officers who were hungry for a medal and had little consideration for their own life and the lives of their soldiers. As a result they sustained exorbitantly high losses which in the end contributed to Germany losing the war.
Often forgotten, the medics are the ones that decide between a gravestone or a purple heart. A good and effective medical system does not only boost morale, but saves lives. This is maybe the single most important reason why the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have sustained relatively few deadly losses.
A careful soldier has better chances to survive. There are many individual and group character traits that influence casualty numbers. To name just a few:
Motivation: fanatics usually risk more and are therefore more prone to get wounded or killed.
Emotions: hate for the enemy and love for your country will get you killed equally quickly.
Personal beliefs: a soldier who believes that the cause for the war is right is more ready to risk his life than someone who is just”doing his job”.
Intelligence: to be able to properly analyze a tactical situation is a big advantage and might save lives.
National character and culture:
Some nations are more risk averse than others. Usually Western countries value the life of an individual more than oriental societies.
During the Croatian War of Independence, foreign volunteers from different nations had different casualty rates , which could be explained, although not exclusively, by their national character:
Hungary: 33 volunteers, 2 killed, 6 %Killed in Action
Australia:15 volunteers, 1 killed, 6.7% Killed in Action
The Netherlands: 27 volunteers, 7.4% Killed in Action
Ireland: 10 volunteers, 1 killed, 10.0% Killed in Action
England: 139 volunteers , 15 killed, 10.8 % Killed in Action
France: 67 volunteers, 8 killed, 11.9 %Killed in Action
United States, 18 volunteers, 3 killed, 16.7% Killed in Action
Austria 10 volunteers, 2 killed, 20% Killed in Action
Germany: 53 volunteers 14 killed, 26.4 % Killed in Action
Although the samples are too small to have any scientific value, they show that soldiers in the same army and conflict, with the same tactics and training, still have very different probabilities to get killed.
If combat losses are acceptable or not depends on the political system. A dictatorship can sacrifice a lot more soldiers before having to deal with domestic unrest than a democracy does. In other words: if you fight for a regime, your chances to get killed are higher.
Many of the above mentioned factors are out of an individual’s control. You get drafted, don’t get the appropriate training and will be sent to war. Your officers are useless and your equipment old and of low quality. There isn’t much you can do.
Often, an individual that volunteers for a non combat related military occupation has better chances to stay alive than a draftee. If the conflict continues for a long time however, these soldiers will also be sent to the frontlines and die.
In the end, each individual’s risk of being killed in combat is the product of all the above mentioned factors and many more. If you are in a wartime military, as a volunteer or draftee, logistics or special forces, there is always the risk to get killed.
You can lower your own personal risk by making the right decisions, but after that it’s out of your hand and it often comes down to sheer luck.
Photo:Foreign volunteers fighting for the Croats on the frontline in Bosnia; Credits by the author