Chicago Tribune March 30, 2003
As bodies pile up, support can slip
History shows death has waged war of attrition on public opinion
By Patrick T. Reardon, Tribune staff reporter.
On March 23, 11 Americans were killed in battles near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq: Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Buesing, Marine Cpl. Jorge Gonzalez, Army Pfc. Howard Johnson and eight others.
Their names and fresh-faced photos soon were everywhere, in newspapers, on television and on the Internet.
In reports to the home front about American casualties of the war in Iraq, there is a speed, intensity and immediacy undreamed of in previous conflicts in world history. Instead of numbers, there are names and faces. Instead of days or weeks passing before word of the dead is released, the information is aggressively rooted out within hours, when possible, by the highly competitive national and world news media.
Yet this is only one way in which the reports of casualties will be experienced differently by today's Americans than those of earlier generations in earlier wars. The emotions that casualty reports of any war elicit--whether sadness, pride, despair or anger--are entwined with the reasons for that war and the expectations of its duration and impact.
And, for each war, those are different.
About 3,650 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed in a single day of the Battle of Antietam in the Civil War. And an average of 600 to 700 American troops lost their lives each day for a four-week period during World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
But no one would expect Americans today to endure such carnage in the Iraq conflict. On the other hand, for no other U.S. war has the fear of terrorism on American soil and casualties among the civilian population been so great.
"The stakes are somewhat less than World War II, or Korea and Vietnam, when the goal was to stop communism," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University political science professor who has written about the influence of casualty reports on public opinion.
As a result, Americans seem likely to have a low threshold for casualties.
"If they do start to get significant--with deaths in the low 100s--there's probably going to be rising discontent, an increasing belief that this was a mistake," Mueller said.
Wars of necessity
Douglas Brinkley, a history professor and director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, said America's wars fall into two categories.
"We have engaged in wars of necessity, like the Civil War. World War II was declared on us," he said. "But this [war in Iraq] is another kind of war."
Brinkley compared this conflict to the Vietnam War, the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48 and the Spanish-American War of 1898--wars waged for reasons other than national survival. Such conflicts are more difficult for Americans to understand and support.
The Mexican War, for example, was waged with the goal of annexing land that became the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Texas and western Colorado, prompting a young Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln to protest in the House of Representatives.
In such conflicts, Brinkley said, "The commander in chief --the president--has to constantly sell the American people on the idea of the war."
Casualties affect not only public opinion, but there also is worry about public opinion that can influence those responsible for military strategy.
Mark Lorell, a defense analyst for the RAND Corp. and author of the 1984 report "Casualties, Public Opinion and Presidential Policy during the Vietnam War," said that, in their research, he and his colleagues found "a lot of circumstantial evidence that concern over casualties does influence policymakers and their strategic decisions."
For example, during one high-level meeting just before the decision to commit the U.S. to a major land war in Vietnam, George Ball, President Lyndon Johnson's undersecretary of state, displayed a chart that showed how a rise in casualties (dead and wounded) during the Korean War was mirrored by a drop in public support for the conflict, Lorell said. Ball argued that there was a cause-and-effect relationship, although he couldn't prove one.
Even during World War II, U.S. officials feared the populace might lose faith in the war effort.
Lorell said he was surprised to learn how afraid the Roosevelt-Truman administration was that the high death tolls in the last year of the war would blunt willingness to carry the battle to its conclusion. Those fears were directly related, he said, to the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan.
Of course, casualty lists can seem long or short, depending on the citizenry's expectations.
In the Civil War, for example, Northerners initially believed that the South could be defeated in short order, but those hopes quickly foundered. The war became a bloody, daily grind from which there was no backing out, no compromise. One side, the Confederate States of America, sought to gain its independence while the other, the loyal states of the Union, battled to put down a rebellion. So much was at stake that high death tolls were expected.
With the 1991 Persian Gulf war, U.S. officials prepared Americans for large numbers of deaths and injuries, and polls showed that one-third of respondents feared that several thousand troops would be killed. Indeed, the Pentagon expected at least 10,000 casualties.
But once the battles began, the losses were surprisingly low--146 Americans killed in action and 467 wounded. No surprise, then, that public opinion was high in favor of the war.
This time, the signals were different. And the effect on the perceptions of Americans may be the opposite.
"The expectations [among Americans] had been that it was going to be a cakewalk with few casualties," Mueller said. "As the casualties go up, there are going to be more and more misgivings."
Lessons of Vietnam
Brinkley noted that since Vietnam, successive administrations have done all they could to keep casualty lists low or non-existent.
"Since Ronald Reagan became president and invaded Grenada, we have always wanted to have an immaculate war that's not at all messy," he said. "Many people believed that this was going to be a quick, casualty-free experience. I don't think people have signed on for a long war with hundreds or even thousands of casualties."
Since Vietnam, the highest American casualty lists have come from terrorist attacks rather than battles--the 241 Marines, soldiers and sailors killed in Lebanon by a truck blast in 1983, and, of course, the more than 3,000 people who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Americans, Mueller noted, have been strong in their support of the war against the Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and willing to accept casualties. The death toll, though, has been low so far.
For the war in Iraq, a subtext has been that Saddam Hussein has been supporting terrorism around the world, although many experts question the connection between Hussein and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Attacking Hussein as a means of trying to blunt terrorism is "somewhat weird," Mueller said, because the war also has raised fear that retaliatory attacks will be launched on U.S. soil.
That points up a new aspect of the casualty question for Americans.
In other wars, the U.S. military has brought death and destruction to the enemy's civilian populations, such as in the World War II firebombing of Dresden in Germany and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
But, with few exceptions, Americans have been safe on their own soil, protected by the two wide oceans.
As Sept. 11 showed, however, the days of such protection are gone. Americans know that future casualty lists could include civilians.
Would a big civilian casualty list feed U.S. anger and boost the willingness to press the war? Or would it lead to disillusionment with the war effort?
No one knows. And no one wants to find out.
The toll in Iraq
The latest numbers from the war, as of 10 p.m. Saturday:
- The U.S. reports 36 dead, including 29 in combat, with 15 missing and seven captured. Thirty of those killed have been identified.
- Britain reports 23 dead.
- Iraq has issued no estimates of its military deaths. The U.S. has reported battles in which at least 250 Iraqi soldiers were killed. In addition, the U.S. has reported taking at least 3,500 prisoners.
- Iraq estimates that at least 425 civilians have been killed, mostly in air strikes.
- A Jordanian taxi driver was killed in a missile strike on Baghdad.
- Five Syrian civilians were killed and 10 others wounded when a U.S. missile hit their bus as they were trying to leave Iraq.
- Two journalists have been killed, a Briton and an Australian, and at least seven others are missing: two Americans, three Arabs and two Britons.
Source: U.S. and British military, Iraqi Information Ministry and news reports.
All figures subject to revision.
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U.S. casualties in major wars
U.S. forces have fought five major wars since the Civil War. Fewer than 150 died in battle in the 1991 Persian Gulf war; World War II, by contrast, killed almost 300,000 military personnel.
By date of U.S. involvement
DURATION IN DAYS: 1,440
TOTAL MILITARY: 3,263,363
BATTLE DEATHS: 214,938
TOTAL DEATHS: 526,832
WORLD WAR I
DURATION IN DAYS: 584
TOTAL U.S. MILITARY: 4,734,991
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 53,402
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 116,516
WORLD WAR II
DURATION IN DAYS: 1,365
TOTAL U.S. MILITARY: 16,112,566
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 291,557
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 405,399
DURATION IN DAYS: 1,126
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 1,789,000
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 33,651
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 36,913
DURATION IN DAYS: 3,921
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 3,403,000
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 47,378
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 58,177
PERSIAN GULF WAR
DURATION IN DAYS: 84
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 665,476
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 148
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 383
Conflicts in the last 20 years
Between the Vietnam War and the war on terrorism, no U.S. conflict lasted more than six months, and casualties among U.S. troops have been low. The military operation in Afghanistan is in its 17th month.
By date of U.S. involvement
DURATION IN DAYS: 51
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 5,000
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 18
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 19
DURATION IN DAYS: 14
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 27,000
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 23
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 23
DURATION IN DAYS: 153
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 26,000
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 29
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 43
DURATION IN DAYS: 77
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 7,000
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 0
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 2
DURATION IN DAYS: 540 (ongoing)
DEPLOYED U.S. TROOPS: 9,000*
U.S. BATTLE DEATHS: 21
TOTAL U.S. DEATHS: 74
Note: Civil War includes Union and Confederate armies. *As of March 2003.
Sources: Federation of American Scientists, globalsecurity.org, U.S. Army Center of Military History, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Chicago Tribune/Lou Carlozo and Nancy Reese.
AMERICA AT WAR.
GRAPHIC: PHOTO GRAPHICPHOTO (color): While the crew members who brought him from the front talk nearby, an unidentified Marine killed in action is wrapped in orange cloth signaling "dead on arrival" at a base in Iraq last week. San Francisco Chronicle photo by Michael Macor.
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