The U.S. military has shied away from enemy body counts during wartime since Vietnam. Enemy attrition, not so much (attrition, noun — a wearing down or weakening of resistance, especially as a result of continuous pressure or harassment). So Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rolled out this new preferred Pentagon yardstick while speaking in Baghdad on Friday.
“We’ve attrited somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of his main ground forces, his ground force capabilities,” he said of Muammar Gaddafi’s military might.
That sounds pretty good. Until you recall he said the following nearly a month ago: “We’ve attrited his overall forces at about the 20- to 25-percent level.”
If I were Robert McNamara, I’d take out my Ford-issued slide rule and do the math: during the first 11 days of war — those days led by the U.S. — Mullen pegged the attrition rate at about 2 percent a day. Since then, over the next 21 days of war, he estimates the additional total attrition at somewhere between 5 and 20 percentage points. That’s a maximum attrition rate of 0.95 percent a day, to a minimum of 0.24 percent a day. That suggests the rate of attrition since the U.S. handed off responsibility for the campaign has dropped off a cliff.
Part of the reason for this goofy math exercise is to suggest that citing attrition figures can only take you so far as an indication of an enemy’s capability. It’s a crude exercise, and we need to be careful not to be swayed by numbers with the heft of Styrofoam.
It only measures firepower, not will. Beyond that, it’s the Pentagon’s preferred way of expressing progress, because it’s impossible for anyone else to measure. Deep in Pentagon intelligence-analysis cells, photo-interpreters study imagery and photographs from Libya, putting black Xes through tanks that have been killed. Then they come up, through both military science and art (aka guesswork) just how much of the Libyan military the allies have taken out.
Mullen summed up the state of the Libyan war Friday with kind of a good-news, bad news shtick.
The good news: Gaddafi’s forces “will continue to go away over time.”
The bad news: “It’s certainly moving towards a stalemate.”
Pay no attention to the fact that those two statements contradict one another.