According to the educated guess of military researcher John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, U.S. forces have expended at least 250,000 small-caliber bullets for every insurgent killed in the present wars. That’s a lot of misses, for which the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are no doubt grateful. With better marksmanship, U.S. forces could have already slain a large fraction of the people residing in those unfortunate countries. Of course, medium- and heavy-caliber bullets, artillery and mortar shells, rockets, and bombs have also killed many people in the present wars, their vastly greater force compensating for the smaller numbers expended.
The application of overwhelming firepower in lieu of alternative tactics has long been the American way of fighting a war. In World War II, U.S. factories cranked out, along with mountains of other munitions, about 41.4 billion rounds of small-arms ammunition, enough to permit the users to take about ten shots at every man, woman, and child alive on earth at that time. Military historians tell us that the U.S. warriors actually concentrated their fire somewhat, so some of the earth’s inhabitants were spared exposure to that particular risk.
Among the many fiscal measures for which mainstream economists can credit the current Bush administration, we may count a tremendous stimulation of the demand for ammunition — as much a blessing in bulking up the GDP as purchases of any other final good, they insist. According to a July 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, “[b]etween fiscal years 2000 and 2005, total requirements [per year] for small caliber ammunitions more than doubled, from about 730 million to nearly 1.8 billion rounds, while total requirements for medium caliber ammunitions increased from 11.7 million rounds to almost 22 million rounds.”
Most of the U.S. forces’ small-arms ammunition is manufactured by contractor Alliant Techsystems (ATK), which operates a government-owned plant located near Independence, Missouri. In 2004, however, ATK’s 1.2 billion cartridges fell short of the government’s demand. Army Major Gen. Buford Blount III stated, “We’re shooting it almost as fast as they can produce it.” As an emergency measure to help make up the shortfall, the government also contracted with Winchester Ammunition (a division of Olin Corporation) and Israel Military Industries, Ltd.
The latter contract did not strike everyone as a shrewd move. At a congressional hearing, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee overseeing the matter, addressed Army Brig. Gen. Paul Izzo, executive officer of the ammunition program: “Can you tell me whose idea it was to contract with a firm in Israel to provide ammunition to kill Muslims? I’ve never heard of anything so goddamned stupid.” To allay Abercrombie’s anxiety, Izzo and Blount promised to use the ammo produced in Israel only for training purposes and to employ only good old American-made ammo for killing people in Iraq and Afghanistan. As reporter Katherine McIntire Peters remarks, this “distinction . . . likely has more resonance among lawmakers than among those on the receiving end of the ammunition.”
By the end of 2005, the Army had established an acquisition strategy for purchasing as many as 2 billion rounds of small-caliber ammunition annually and brought in a second domestic prime contractor, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, to supply the government with 300 million rounds annually from its plant in St. Petersburg, Florida. With ATK producing 1.2 billion rounds per year and modernizing its plant to produce as many as 1.5 billion, the Army’s overall acquisition settled at about 1.8 billion rounds annually.
For the four fiscal years 2002-2005, the military’s small-arms ammunition “requirements” totaled nearly 5.6 billion rounds. With approximately 3.6 billion being added during the next two years, the total for fiscal years 2002-2007 comes to about 9.2 billion rounds. If we assume that U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have killed 50,000 people with small-arms fire (a high estimate, I suspect), then they have needed, for training plus actual fighting, 184,000 bullets per person killed. If they have killed only 30,000 in this way, then the figure rises to almost 307,000 bullets per person shot dead, which is roughly equal to the estimate Pike ventured two years ago before he decided to “round that down to 250,000 so that we are underestimating.”
If we assume that only 3 billion of the 9.2 billion small-caliber rounds consumed by U.S. forces during the past six fiscal years were fired in combat in Iraq, then, given an Iraqi population of approximately 27 million in recent years, the rate of U.S. small-arms fire during the present war works out to more than 100 shots for every man, woman, and child in the country, or more than ten times what the world’s population received per capita from U.S. forces during World War II.
Where do all those high-powered bullets go? Is it any wonder that check-point foul-ups so often end with the innocent occupants of a vehicle, many of them women and children, being shot dead, or that exchanges of gunfire in urban settings take such a toll in persons killed or wounded by stray shots from American guns? Iraqis have complained repeatedly since the occupation began that U.S. troops have itchy trigger fingers and react wildly to attacks, real or imagined, by firing their automatic weapons almost at random into the surrounding area. Combining tense, frightened solders, massive firepower, and densely inhabited neighborhoods does not make for a safe environment.
Moreover, not to belabor a point, but I do hope the reader will remember that we are considering here only small-arms fire, to which in any realistic account of the war we must add the expenditure of enormous quantities of medium and heavy bullets, mortar and artillery shells, rockets, and bombs, along with a substantial amount of old-fashioned pummeling with boot heels, rifle butts, and assorted other clubs. The Iraqis have not been lying in a bed of roses for the past 52 months.
Unfortunately, the future does not appear to hold much relief for them, and many, many more are destined to perish in the lethal thunderstorms of U.S. bullets, shells, and bombs. Why, we might wonder, must this madness continue? What good can it possibly accomplish? When Congressman Abercrombie told Gen. Izzo that he had “never heard of anything so goddamned stupid” as buying ammo manufactured in Israel for use by U.S. military forces in killing Muslims, he might well have weighed his words more carefully, because at least one thing has been manifestly even stupider: invading Iraq in the first place.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan Government Power and a Free Society.