Pentagon's quietest calculation: the casualty count
War planners' estimate of battle losses may factor in an American expectation for 'sterile warfare.'
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In essence, this means the use of overwhelming force as well as a clear end result to any fighting. In the wake of the 1983 attack on US Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing facility in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, it also came to include what some critics say is an over-emphasis on "force protection" - sheltering US troops from possible attack at nearly all costs.Skip to next paragraph
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Defense analyst Jeffrey Record of the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy in Atlanta calls this "a profound aversion, bordering on the phobic."
"This dread of casualties is pronounced among the country's political and military leadership, and in the war over Kosovo it produced the elevation of force protection above mission accomplishment," Dr. Record writes in a recent issue of Parameters, a publication of the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "Indeed, the available evidence identifies a significant disparity in casualty tolerance between the leadership and the average citizen, with the latter more willing to accept combat losses - depending on the circumstances."
But gauging the acceptability of combat casualties - especially in a public and political sense - also involves beliefs and perceptions impossible to measure in opinion surveys. And recent engagements have shown that even an overwhelmingly positive ratio of combat losses may not be enough to hold public support. In the most infamous battle in Somalia - the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" episode in Mogadishu - the US killed between 500 and 1,000 Somalis while losing 18 American troops. That was enough to cause a US pullout shortly thereafter.
"I think that Americans will tolerate casualties if they feel we're winning and a war is necessary and the strategy for waging the war is sound," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Under those circumstances, higher casualties may do more to rally the country around the effort than weaken our commitment."
Still, experts say, it depends on other variables: how the casualties are incurred (hostile action, "friendly fire," accidents), or whether such casualties could have been anticipated given the particular circumstances.
"People watch enough old movies to understand that war means killing and death," says Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "They are willing to pay the price. They just don't want to be surprised."
The latest Gallup Poll shows that most Americans (56 percent) expect there to be fewer than 10,000 US troops killed in any war with Iraq, with 30 percent saying it would be less than 1,000. But even though 95 percent say it's likely that the US and its allies would win, barely more than half of those surveyed agree that "the current situation in Iraq is worth going to war over." And three-quarters worry that such conflict "could develop into a larger war."
Against this political backdrop, it may be understandable that military officials hesitate to talk about likely US casualties.
"We are on uncharted ground here," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Washington. "In the past, the decision to go to war had always involved the sacrifice of blood and treasure. Now, the sacrifice is largely one of treasure, instead of blood. It has made it far easier for America to go to war, which may explain why we have been almost permanently at war for the past dozen years."