The Magazine

Casualties Are the First Truth of War

ADVANCE COPY from the April 7, 2003 issue: And one the public is well prepared to accept.

Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By PETER D. FEAVER
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WARFARE IS ABOUT balancing three goals. On the one hand, you must accomplish military objectives, like seizing territory or destroying enemy forces. On the other hand, you must accomplish political objectives, the larger geopolitical goals that the combat is meant to serve, like stability in the region. On the third hand, you must bring back alive as many of your soldiers as possible.

For much of the post-Desert Storm era, the U.S. military has been accused of letting the third goal, force protection, trump the other two. In the Bosnia peacekeeping operation, our NATO allies mocked U.S. forces as ninja turtles, overly laden with body armor and hunkered down on base rather than mixing with the population and keeping the peace. In the Kosovo conflict, questions were raised about General Wesley Clark's zero-casualty, air-only plan, which let Serbian forces run roughshod over Kosovar Albanians and appeared to sacrifice Serbian civilian lives in order to protect the lives of our pilots.

The U.S. military acted this way because they believed (rightly) that political leaders demanded it. Political leaders demanded it because they believed (wrongly) that the U.S. public demanded it.

The United States conducted warfare as if it had a glass jaw--menacing, but easily beaten if its soldiers fell in battle. The precipitous retreat from Somalia was exhibit A.

Lots of people around the world believed casualty phobia was the Achilles' heel of American foreign policy, and some even acted accordingly: Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, and now Saddam Hussein.

Only this time, the U.S. military is not performing according to that script. This time, no one can credibly claim that the war plan puts U.S. force protection ahead of military or political objectives. On the contrary, the plan is remarkably bold and clearly places rapid achievement of the military goals--like blocking the use of weapons of mass destruction or encircling Baghdad--ahead of force protection. U.S. forces are obviously taking great care to minimize Iraqi casualties and thus serve the larger political objective of restoring stability to Iraq, even if it puts U.S. forces at greater risk.

Critics have already surfaced to grouse that the plan is too bold, that Donald Rumsfeld has forced the military into taking too many risks. They worry that the higher casualties will translate into a precipitous decline in public support.

Of course, it is too early to know with certainty whether the battle plan is managing the risks appropriately. There are still military and political objectives to be won. But it is not too soon to put to rest the myth that the public demands force protection ahead of mission accomplishment.

Polls show that the public understandably views casualties as a necessary evil--tragic at the personal level, but tolerable if suffered in the successful pursuit of an important goal. The public does not demand that we cut and run at the first sight of bodybags, but the sight might cause the public to take a peek at political leaders and do a gut check. If political leaders panic, as they did in the Somalia case, then both support for the mission and tolerance for casualties plummet. Why pay such a price for failure? But if political leaders remain calm and convey confidence that the mission will be successful, then the price can be paid.

The Bush administration understands this well and has taken great pains to signal steadfastness of purpose and thus reinforce the military's resolve. Unlike the previous administration, the Bush team has emphasized that victory in Iraq may involve high human costs. It was a theme in the president's first wartime radio address, well before the initial tactical setbacks on Sunday. Every announcement of a casualty is followed up by a reminder that the United States will prevail. Every adverse development, like photos of mistreated American POWs, is used to frame the rationale for the war--Iraq's flouting of international law--rather than frame defeat and confusion on the part of the U.S. military.

The early poll results show that the public is getting this message. In a Washington Post-ABC poll taken after bloody Sunday, support for the war remained at 70 percent even though a majority (54 percent) now believed the "United States and its allies will sustain 'significant' casualties in the war." No one in the public was demanding or expecting a cakewalk; roughly 80 percent expected a tough fight for Baghdad. Essentially the same results show up in a CBS-New York Times poll taken Monday, after the news had even more time to sink in.

Public support will remain strong, provided that victory is achieved. The sooner the better, of course, but the polls suggest that the public is not unrealistically impatient; nearly half expect the war to last months. That should be plenty of time to discover whether the war plan was daring or foolhardy. In the meantime, the very same presidential resolve that is shoring up public opinion can shore up military confidence.

That is why the military accepted a plan that deviated from its conservative roots and put mission accomplishment squarely ahead of force protection. The Vietnam nightmare is a political leadership that starts a war and then hangs the military out to dry when adverse developments arise. Without confidence in the political leadership, the military's natural reluctance to use force can be impossible to overcome. With a political leader as resolute as President Bush, however, the military need not fear this and can focus on their fronts rather than their backs.

Peter D. Feaver is associate professor of political science and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University. His most recent book is "Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations" (Harvard University Press).