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Casualties could test resolve of US public

If troop losses rise, history suggests support could weaken - or be galvanized.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2003



WASHINGTON

Nearly two weeks into the Iraq campaign, Americans' overall support for the war remains consistently strong. But that resolve may be tested as the conflict shows signs of lasting longer than anticipated - and as the number of US service members killed, wounded, and missing in action continues to mount.

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So far, 46 US deaths have been reported. That would make for a lower casualty rate than in the first Gulf War, when 147 Americans were killed on the battlefield over the course of six weeks. But many believe the current count could actually be much higher, since it does not include troops listed as captured or missing in action or tallies from recent battles. Also, the Pentagon has warned that the toughest fighting is yet to come.

Just how long a campaign and how many casualties the public will accept before support might begin to drop, is difficult to predict, experts say. It involves a number of factors such as Americans' expectations going into the war, how strongly they believe in the war's cause, and how convinced they are of the probability of success. In addition, the public's patience may be tried by the 24-hour media coverage, which can make a week feel like a month, and tends to magnify the loss of life.

"There could come a point where the public has had enough," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. Although nowhere near that point yet, he says, "there's not [going to be] an unlimited acceptance of casualties, particularly in a war where people had given only qualified support up until the actual decision to go."

The current casualty totals pale in comparison to the losses sustained in many past conflicts. In Vietnam, more than 58,000 Americans died. In World War II, the nation lost more than 400,000 troops.

Recently, the US has seen relatively short and bloodless conflicts. No Americans died in Kosovo, and 20 have died in Afghanistan and the Philippines.

As a result, the public has greatly lowered its expectations of likely war casualties. Before the first Gulf War, Gallup polls showed that one-third of Americans expected several thousand US losses. But in the run-up to this conflict, only 5 percent expected that many, while 40 percent expected fewer than 100.

If the public's original outlook proves to have been vastly overconfident, some Americans may become disillusioned, analysts say. That doesn't necessarily mean they will withdraw support.

Americans have already been revising their expectations as the war proceeds. According to a CBS News poll, while 53 percent of Americans thought at the war's outset that it would last a few weeks, now just 27 percent believe so, and 66 percent believe it will go on for many months.

"If expectations aren't met, there's greater chance for disappointment," says Mr. Kohut. "But on the other hand, people ... could come to a conclusion that this is justifiably more difficult than expected."

Also, evidence from past conflicts shows that unexpected losses can just as easily stiffen Americans' resolve as weaken it.

Contrary to popular belief, the disturbing images of US troops being dragged through the streets in Somalia did not cause Americans to lose faith in the humanitarian mission there, says James Burk, a sociologist at Texas A&M University. "Even after [the incident in] Mogadishu, the public retained confidence in the humanitarian mission, and would have supported troop presence there for that purpose," he says.

After the Lebanon barracks bombing, the public's immediate reaction was "to increase American military presence," he says.

If Iraq were to use chemical or biological weapons, or take other actions regarded as unjust, it would strengthen the public's determination to withstand casualties and push on with the war, Professor Burk says.

The most likely cause of public disapproval, analysts say, would be if the US military is perceived as either careless or incompetent, or if the administration's war conduct generates strong bipartisan criticism. But in a patriotic, wartime environment, this can take a while to set in: During the Vietnam conflict, the public remained largely supportive for about four years before criticism of the administration's strategy dropped approval ratings into the 30s. Even then, "a majority of the people dissatisfied thought the war wasn't being fought hard enough - they weren't antiwar protestors in the traditional sense," says David Perlmutter, a Louisiana State University communications professor.

Yet the media coverage of this war, with its ongoing analysis of the military's every move, could very well speed up any emerging criticism - and make the public less tolerant of minor setbacks. Shortly into the conflict, the word "quagmire" was already being used, says Professor Perlmutter: "It's as if five years of war is being compressed into a month." The same may go for casualties. "The coverage is so saturated that it magnifies the importance of every individual life," he says. "Every death has its own story now."

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