The half a percent solution: More on why we are losing/have lost the war in Iraq

Congressman Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania gave a brutally clear interview on NPR’s On Point program yesterday. The whole thing is worth a listen, but a key comment came fairly early on.

Murphy was promoting his new memoir and talking about his experience as a member of a unit of the 82nd Airborne in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. As the occupation was beginning, a total of 3,500 soldiers from that division had responsibility for a district of Baghdad that was home to about 1.5 million Iraqis.

Bit of background here: Murphy’s dad was (is?) a Philadelphia cop. Murphy had expected to be one himself, but the twists and turns of a somewhat hellraising youth led him to ROTC and a career in the US Army. But he knew from policing, and he’s got Phillie in his bones. The key fact that Murphy gave his listeners is that from a policing point of view, Philadelphia is just about the same size as his area of operation in Baghdad.

How many cops does Philadelphia use to police its 1.5 million residents? 7,000. Oh — and a couple of other things: Police officers in Philadelphia speak the local language, live in neighborhoods in (and, to be sure, around) the city, and many if not most have family roots that go back one or more generations into that community. The 82nd Airborne in Bagdad…not so much.

To Murphy this was just one more example of how badly conceived and led the Iraq operation was from the beginning. That’s certainly true, and the more important meaning of the comparison.

But to me what stood out from that couple of sentences in an almost hour long interview, was the importance of scientific –and more precisely — quantitative reasoning in every day life.

One of the great things about real quantitative reasoning is that it is a very efficient way to think about appropriate problems. Individual military engagements, of course, are all different; there are procedures, training and plans you can make to improve your odds of success, but there is no simple algorithm that is going to get your platoon through every contact with the enemy.

Warfare, however, does have some quantitative approaches that make individual successes more likely and minimize both the liklihood and the consequences of single set backs. That’s the point behind the old cliche often attributed to Omar Bradley: “Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.” (The quote turns up all over — see this for example.)

That is, actually getting right the calculation for the number of spare parts you need to keep a tank running across Russia makes a big difference to your chances of success — see Richard Overy’s excellent Why the Allies Won for details.

Coming back to Murphy’s anecdote, the other virtue of quantitative reasoning as applied to Iraq, (besides being essential — i.e. we see what happens when our leaders ignore it), is that it is efficient.

It enables you to learn a lot about different courses of action, retrospectively or in prospect. And it does so very quickly. It turns out that in many situations you don’t need much knowledge to be able to infer a great deal more, with great confidence. Simple models based on relatively simple and easy to get data actually can do a lot of heavy lifting.

(As an aside — the PBS kids show Cyberchase takes this as its core theme. My seven year old son is addicted, and I’m glad.)

Try this one on for size: what are minimums for policing large urban populations during an occupation? You could start by looking at a few large cities already at peace — Philadelphia for example. We know, thanks to Captain-turned-Congressman Murphy that Philly runs out about one cop for about every 200 citizens.

You can take that as a working average for cities with a diverse populaton with some identity divisions between them, a working civil government, an established rule of law, and a common language, shared history, and a fair number of common civic symbolic unifiers — a disdain for Santa Claus at Eagles games and so on.

In other words, 1/200 is your starting approximation for policing requirements when you begin to think about taking over the responsibility for order in an unfamiliar territory.

You would, if you were the least bit prudent (or if your own skin and those of soldiers under your command were at stake), probably try to work out some of the factors that might alter that number: things like ethnic/sectarian divisions more intense than you were used to; language barriers; the absence of existing civil institutions; the lack of a history of rule of law and so on.

The bottom line is that there is no rational way to come up with a number smaller than that required to police a city at peace whose police force patrols with the active consent of the overwhelming majority of the policed.

Hence, the decision to station just 3,500 soldiers whose duties included but were not limited to maintaining civil order in an occupied city neighborhood as large as Philadelphia was an obvious error — one of a pattern of blunders that has cost so much for so long.

And the key lesson to draw out of all this belaboring of the obvious? It took only two numerical facts to reach that conclusion: the number of police in Phillie; the number of troops in the neighborhoods of Baghdad. You don’t have to be brilliant to think clearly.

You just have to choose to do so, and to employ the intellectual tools human beings have spent millenia developing to do so.

I want a President that can count beyond “one, two, three, many.”

Image: Etienne Jeurat, “Prostitutes transported by the Police,” 1755. Source: (via Wikimedia Commons) The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Explore posts in the same categories: Bush follies, good books, Iraq, Mathematics, numbers, Politics, radio, Uncategorized, War, Who needs science?

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7 Comments on “The half a percent solution: More on why we are losing/have lost the war in Iraq”


  1. Is it just a coincidence that Eric Shinseki thought we’d need twice as many troops as the Bushists sent? Maybe he could actually multiply.

  2. Michelle S Says:

    Heh. My first instinct upon reading this was to think “perhaps Philadelphia is not the best example of a city at peace.” But that actually just furthers the point. Even having one cop per two hundred people in Philly, we can’t seem to stop our fellow citizens in the city of brotherly love from killing each other. In 2007 we averaged about one homicide per day. Perhaps things will improve with a new mayor and new top cop, but we all know that even if it happens, it’s going to take time. If 7,000 law enforcement officers per 1.5 million people ain’t enough to keep the peace in a city that’s not technically at war (unless you count the ongoing struggles against poverty, racial discrimination, and the probably innumerable other struggles that contribute to our serious murder problem), how could 3,500 soldiers be expected to do so in an area with the same population *during* an actual war?

    Of course, one could argue that a soldier with higher tactical training and presumably better weaponry is more effective than a regular police officer at maintaining order. But I haven’t seen any mathematical studies proving that one soldier is the equivalent of two cops.

  3. Tom Says:

    Yeah, Michelle,

    I was thinking of the former Mayor Goode and his police commissioner Sambor who called in an air strike on their own city during the MOVE crisis when I wrote this. Philadelphia is not perhaps the best example of a baseline American large city that is peacefully policed by the consent of its residents. But the basic point is, as you suggest, only enhanced by the notion that 7,000 ain’t enough for a city that is pretty rich, where cops and the rest speak more or less a common dialect and so on.

    But I don’t think you are right in suggesting that soldiers are better able than police to perform police functions by virtue of their military training. Quite the reverse, in fact. When soldiers are tasked to peform “actions in support of the civil power” they require extra training. It’s easy to figure out what to do in a firefight — shoot them before they shoot you and yours. It’s much harder to figure out how to calm tempers after a traffic accident, for example, or what to do if someone with an agenda reports what is supposed to be a protection racket, or what have you. Policing is hard, complicated work, and the subtleties required to do it well are not part of the infantryman’s basic training.


  4. […] especially in Carter’s case, deepen the critique on the point I’ve tried to raise in this post. That […]

  5. JD Says:

    The biggest problem in both Iraq and Philadelphia is that the citizenry is unwilling to step forward and provide information regarding crimes.

    In Philadelphia, you have the street policy of “no snitching”. How frustrating must it be for cops to try to find a criminal when witnesses are unwilling to provide informtion?

    Similarly in Baghdad, and elsewhere in Iraq, the people were scared to come forward for fear of terrorist retaliation.

    Now, citizens of Iraq are willing to share information and violence has declined dramatically. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Philadelphia.

  6. eWreckers Says:

    This sounds similar to the old:

    If a brick weighs a brick and a half. How much do three bricks weigh?


  7. […] example — these posts sought to illustrate of the value of remembering to do something as basic as converting a […]


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