Somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, war planners are searching for answers to the ultimate questions about armed conflict with Iraq: Will it be worth it? Even assuming Saddam Hussein is toppled, will the likely loss of US servicemen and women be "acceptable"?
If the last Gulf War is any guide, official estimates of US casualties vary widely. One scenario back then saw as many as 200,000 of the nearly 600,000 US forces in the region succumbing to biological attacks from Iraqi spray tanks. In the end, Pentagon planners set their best estimate of KIAs (those killed in action) at 18,000 - which turned out to be more than 100 times the actual losses.
Not surprisingly, officials today are closemouthed about the subject.
"The Pentagon rarely will discuss or even admit to doing casualty estimates," says Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. "That's because serious assessments would necessarily consider a high and low range, which would tend to discourage public support for the war."
But there's little doubt that such estimates are being developed, according to those who have been part of such planning, particularly since this war - if it happens - is seen by many as finishing the job begun 12 years ago.
"In this situation - going deep into Iraq, planning to stay a long time, perhaps even fighting inside Baghdad - casualty estimates have been at the heart of the planning," says a retired military officer who played a key Pentagon role in preparation for the Gulf War. "I'd expect that they've chosen a timeline and attack plan specifically shaped by these kinds of risk assessments."
Since the Vietnam War, which saw more than 58,000 US troops killed, Americans have come to expect relatively few casualties when they go into combat.
Before the Gulf War in 1991, upwards of 20,000 body bags were shipped to the region in preparation for the fighting. Yet when Iraqi forces had been destroyed or routed just four days into the ground war, 147 Americans had been killed in combat. Since then, there have been no losses to hostile action in the Balkans, and US combat deaths in Afghanistan total 26 so far.
But some military officers worry that Americans may come to expect "sterile warfare," as one Army officer wounded during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada puts it. And the trend has come both to reflect and to affect US military doctrine - particularly with an all-volunteer force "that at times seems to have signed up for the duration of the peace," as another source half-jests. As a result, says recently retired Army Col. Scott Snook, a "very risk-averse approach" has developed within the armed forces.
"The worst thing you can do over there is screw up and lose a soldier wounded or killed," says Dr. Snook, a West Point graduate who spent 22 years as a combat engineer and now teaches at the Harvard Business School. "There's no upside, so there's only downside. It limits the military as a foreign-policy vehicle, as a foreign-policy weapon."
In part, this reflects the doctrine laid down by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and then by Colin Powell when he was a four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War.
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.
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."