Numerical Considerations in Military Occupations

By Brown, John S. | Army, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Numerical Considerations in Military Occupations


Brown, John S., Army


A frequent criticism of current operations in Iraq is that we committed too few troops to the tasks of occupation. How many troops should we have committed? Gen. Eric K. Shinseki's prewar forecast that we would need several hundred thousand is now iconic, albeit unspecific. A recent RAND study suggests one soldier to 50 people is about right-thus occupying a nation of 23 million would require about 460,000 soldiers. Unfortunately, our own history does not inspire much confidence in such mathematics. In 1946 we fielded one soldier for every 500 (and a few years later one for every thousand) Japanese during an occupation so successful it converted a ferocious adversary into a staunch ally. During that portion of the Vietnam War that resembled an occupation, we fielded almost one allied soldier for every 10 Vietnamese, and nevertheless came to an unhappy result.

Each occupation is unique. The collateral missions associated with each are unique as well. An occupation may solely intend to enforce the instrument ending hostilities or to achieve a stated objective. Examples include our participation in the occupation of the Rhineland after World War I, or of southern Iraq in 1991. The occupation of the Rhineland held critical portions of Germany hostage to coerce the Germans to adhere to the armistice and accept the Treaty of Versailles. Americans poured 260,000 troops into a tiny sector with 900,000 souls, including Trier and Coblenz. The ratio of troops to population was never an issue, since no attempt was made to occupy Germany as a whole. Similarly, in 1991 we maintained 150,000 soldiers in a portion of Iraq that had few people and much oil until Saddam Hussein complied with our terms. Such coercion implies an effective residual government worth coercing. In its absence, such collateral missions as humanitarian relief, law and order, nation building or external defense may drive required numbers up.

War can create huge numbers of distressed individuals, and an occupying power is generally responsible for them until someone else takes over. In Austria after World War II, Americans were generally accepted as liberators, but nevertheless found their hands full with 186,000 displaced persons and 305,000 prisoners of war. In Germany we dealt with 550,000 displaced persons and 2,000,000 ethnic Germans fleeing the Soviets. In Japan 1, 200,000 displaced persons (generally imported foreign labor) were trying to get out while 6,600,000 Japanese overseas were trying to get back. Occupations of Bosnia beginning in 1995 and Kosovo beginning in 1999 repeated this pattern, with hundred of thousands of refugees having fled the fighting.

Law and order can break down during the course of hostilities, or perhaps not be present in the first place. Occupations of Haiti (1915-1934) and Nicaragua (1926-1933) intended to secure American lives, property and interests until local constabularies could be raised to do the same. The Philippines (1899-1916), Italy (1943-1945) and Korea (1945-1948) similarly suffered lawlessness. In Bosnia and Kosovo it proved difficult to distinguish crime from violence for other purposes, and Kuwait (1991) had to recover from crimes so systematic they amounted to rape.

Occupied nations often have to be built or rebuilt to achieve our vision for their future. In Japan the grip of traditional elites was shaken by land reforms involving half the labor force and redistributing one third of the land. Germany, Italy and Austria were beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan. The Philippines proved an opportunity for our progressive movement to express itself overseas. Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo also witnessed major post-war relief efforts.

Occupying powers can find themselves responsible for security from external threats. …

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