The Casualty-Aversion Myth
War College Review
It's easy to see. . . . People go off to
war and the bands play and the flags fly. And it's not quite so
easy when the flag is draped over a coffin coming back through
-SENATOR JOHN GLENN, 1997
That is the nature of the American public's
sensitivity to U.S. military casualties? How does casualty sensitivity
affect the pursuit of American national security objectives?1 The
first question is easy to answer: There is no intrinsic, uncritical
casualty aversion among the American public that limits the use
of U.S. armed forces. There is a wide range of policy objectives
on behalf of which the public is prepared to accept American casualties
as a cost of success. Squeamishness about even a few casualties
for all but the most important national causes is a myth. Nonetheless,
it is a myth that persists as widely accepted conventional wisdom.
The second question is more difficult to answer.
Avoidance of casualties is an unassailably desirable objective.
It is precisely the natural nobility of the argument that makes
it susceptible to misuse in the policy-making process, potentially
leading to ineffective or inefficient choices. The persistence of
the myth also causes adversaries to misjudge the likely reactions
of the United States. In both of these ways, the myth of deep-seated
casualty aversion among the American public hinders the pursuit
of American national objectives.
The evidence indicates that the public response
to casualties is a function of leadership and consensus among national
policy elites, who have wide latitude in this area. They should
not allow concern about casualties to replace thorough consideration
of the larger context of costs and benefits. National leaders must
not let unsubstantiated assertions of American casualty aversion
distort the national security policy-making process or compromise
professional military ethics.
This article briefly describes the nature of
American casualty sensitivity, identifies some prominent negative
effects of widespread acceptance of the casualty myth, and offers
recommendations that may produce a more accurate understanding of
the American public's casualty sensitivity.
AMERICAN CASUALTY SENSITIVITY
Are the American people in fact reluctant to
risk lives? In a superficial and unhelpful sense, the American public
is always reluctant to risk lives, particularly if there is some
other reasonable way to accomplish objectives. No one wants casualties.
Myth and Conventional Wisdom
We had 500 casualties a week when we [the
Nixon administration] came into office. America now is not willing
to take any casualties. Vietnam produced a whole new attitude.
HENRY KISSINGER, 1999
It's obvious that there's a political agenda
to have low casualties. . . . If my Achilles' heel is the low
tolerance of the American people for casualties, then I have to
recognize that my success or failure in this mission [in Bosnia]
is directly affected by that.
MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM L. NASH, 1996
[America is] a nation intolerant of casualties.
EDWARD LUTTWAK, 1995
And the hearts that beat so loudly and enthusiastically
to do something, to intervene in areas where there is not an immediate
threat to our vital interests, when those hearts that had beaten
so loudly see the coffins, then they switch, and they say: "What
are we doing there?"
SENATOR WILLIAM COHEN (LATER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE)
These are just some of the many similar expressions
of the conventional wisdom of American public casualty aversion.2
The conventional wisdom is strong among civilian, military, and
media elites. Steven Kull and I. M. Destler have recorded many interviews-with
members of Congress and their staffs, the media, the executive branch,
and leaders of nongovernmental organizations-that support this view.3
Other interviews with members of the media and military leaders
also confirm a widespread belief that the American public is unwilling
to accept casualties.4
The wellspring of this conventional wisdom
is generally understood to be the Vietnam War, as reinforced by
experiences in Lebanon (1983) and Somalia (1993). The tremendous
efforts by civilian and military leaders to minimize casualties
in other operations-the Persian Gulf War (1991), Haiti (1994), Bosnia
(1995), and Kosovo (1999)-can be read as a reaction to the public's
purported low tolerance for casualties. Rising casualties in Iraq
following the end of "major combat operations" have also
been portrayed as an important factor affecting the public's willingness
to support the mission. The abandonment of military intervention
in several instances in which it was seriously considered has also
been attributed to casualty aversion. Examples include the Balkans
(before 1995), Rwanda (1994), and Zaire/Congo (1995).
Manifestations of this conventional wisdom
are many and widespread-the "Vietnam syndrome," the "Dover
test," the "CNN effect," part of the Weinberger/Powell
doctrine, the concept of "post-heroic warfare," and a
social equity effect attributed to the absence of American civilian
elites and their children from military service.
The "Vietnam syndrome" is commonly
understood as a general reticence among Americans to use military
force abroad as a result of negative lessons of the Vietnam experience.
It is "that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted
our national psyche for decades after our defeat."5 It is a
comprehensive generalization about the American public's unwillingness
to continue to support U.S. foreign military efforts, particularly
as casualties rise. This aspect of the Vietnam syndrome relates
casualty aversion to the idea that public support for military operations
in Vietnam declined because of the human costs of the war.6 A variant
attributing the decline in popular support to media portrayals of
events in Vietnam has fed negative attitudes toward the media, particularly
among many members of the military.
Senator John Glenn's "Dover test"
(alluded to in the first epigraph, above) refers to the American
public's assumed response to American service people returning to
the United States in flag-draped coffins. This oft-repeated image
symbolizes the cost in casualties of American military operations.
In an interesting response to its presumed visceral effect, the
Department of Defense has prohibited media coverage of such events
since 1989: "There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media
coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing
from Dover AFB [Air Force Base] or Ramstein AFB [in Germany], to
include interim stops."7 In a sense, this provides an official
endorsement of the presumption that casualties have a powerful effect
on the public.
The "CNN effect" refers broadly to
the purported impact of certain types of visual images, to include
American casualties, when broadcast on the news. Like the Dover
test, it suggests that visual images of casualties will elicit an
immediate response from the public. Its various formulations convey
the idea that the public can respond precipitately to gut-wrenching
depictions of human suffering, not only military casualties but
starving children and other civilian victims of war.8 This dynamic
is also assumed to induce a similar visceral response to such dramatic
pictures as those of the body of an American soldier being dragged
through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.9
The Weinberger/Powell doctrine is a set of
six tests, drawn in part from the Vietnam War experience, that,
its advocates believe, should govern the use of American military
power.10 One test is the presence or absence of the support of the
American public and its elected representatives. In policy debates
considering the use of force, it is in the framework of this test
that assertions about the willingness of the public to handle casualties
enter decision making.11
"Post-heroic warfare" is the idea
that the scope of casualties resulting from the clash of armies
at close quarters is no longer tolerable to the American public.
Edward Luttwak asserts that America is "a nation intolerant
of casualties";12 he relates this to the decreasing size of
American families in the post-World War II era. Luttwak believes
that there exists a powerful unwillingness among Americans to permit
military operations that might endanger their children.
Finally, sociologist Charles Moskos posits
that the American public's sensitivity is a function of inequitable
social relations created by the absence of elite members of society
or their children in the ranks of the military. "Only when
the privileged classes perform military service does the country
define the cause as worth young people's blood. Only when elite
youth are on the firing line do war losses become more acceptable."13
THE NUANCED REALITY
Nonetheless, there are many interests and national
objectives for which Americans have readily found the risk of casualties
an acceptable cost. There is in fact no evidence that the public
is intrinsically casualty averse. Several studies based on polling
data demonstrate that the American public is willing to accept casualties
when the need and the likely consequences are explained to them
by national leaders. This readiness is not restricted to issues
of vital national interests or self-defense. The public takes its
lead from how national leaders characterize and justify the mission.
Leadership plays a crucial role in influencing how the public responds
One of the best studies on this topic is Eric
V. Larson's Casualties and Consensus.14 In this detailed study,
Larson explores the relationship between public support for military
operations and the level of casualties for World War II, Korea,
Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Panama, the 1991-92 Gulf
war, and Somalia. The findings are very instructive.
Majorities of the public have historically
considered the potential and actual casualties in U.S. wars and
military operations to be an important factor in their support,
and there is nothing new in this. But the current attention to the
public's unwillingness to tolerate casualties misses the larger
context in which the issue has become salient: The simplest explanation
consistent with the data is that support for U.S. military operations
and the willingness to tolerate casualties are based upon a sensible
weighing of benefits and costs that is influenced heavily by consensus
(or its absence) among political leaders.15
Further, casualties do not trigger an immediate
public desire for withdrawal from an operation. Both in Vietnam
and in Somalia, for example, the public was willing to accept casualties
even as the political leaders signaled that the United States would
extract itself. The public supported orderly, not precipitous, withdrawal.
In both cases, Larson's analysis suggests that an important consideration
was the public's support for continued engagement until prisoner
or hostage issues were resolved.16
In a study that differentiated between the
mass public, civilian elites, and military elites, Peter Feaver
and Christopher Gelpi found the mass public more willing than policy
elites to accept casualties in hypothetical national missions ranging
from conventional war to peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention.
They also found civilian elites more ready than military leaders
to accept casualties in intervention missions short of conventional
Polling data indicates that though the American
public's willingness to accept casualties is related to the strength
of U.S. interests involved, a wide range of justifications is acceptable.
The public does not require a direct threat to U.S. or allied security
or other such vital interests to endorse the use of armed force.
Instead, it supports broader American efforts on behalf of democratization,
humanitarian assistance, and cultivation of a favorable international
environment for the United States and other nations, including for
the United Nations and UN peacekeeping.18 Polling related to operations
in Afghanistan as well as with respect to military operations against
Iraq also demonstrates robust public support for military operations,
even with expectations of casualties.19 Polling data, then, reinforces
what many analyses have noted over the years-Americans are motivated
by considerations of both realistic national interests and idealistic
NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF THE CASUALTY-AVERSION
If the response to the supposed casualty aversion
is simply the use of alternative means to accomplish the same objective,
there is no problem. Unfortunately, perceptions of casualty aversion
can have more negative effects. Misplaced concern on this point
can significantly impede the pursuit of national objectives, in
four main ways.
Inefficient or Ineffective Execution
Belief that the public cannot withstand casualties
can skew choices concerning the use of force in ways that cause
operations to be conducted inefficiently or ineffectively. Recent
combat operations in Kosovo (1999) and Afghanistan (2001-present)
illustrate this point. Another aspect of this negative effect is
the manner in which American armed forces, overly concerned about
casualties, pursue force protection and "zero defects"
to such an extent that mission effectiveness is hindered.
In 1999 in Yugoslavia, NATO found itself in
a dilemma partly, if not wholly, based on the priority given to
avoiding friendly casualties. On the first night of the war, President
William Clinton announced that he did not intend to use ground forces
in Kosovo. This knowledge made it possible for the Serbs to hide
weapons and troops-forces that otherwise would have been tactically
deployed and therefore more easily detectable-from the NATO air
campaign. Furthermore, the difficulties in accurately targeting
from the mandated fifteen-thousand-foot altitude made accidental
civilian deaths and injuries ("collateral damage") more
likely. Meanwhile, the Serbian forces (regular, police, and irregular),
free to operate near civilian targets that NATO was taking care
to avoid, were able to accelerate their efforts to force Kosovar
Albanians to leave.
Ultimately, in terms of lost U.S. lives, the
Kosovo operation was a resounding success, if not a rapid one. In
terms, however, of one of the operation's principal objectives-support
for the Kosovar Albanians and an end to ethnic cleansing and atrocities-the
effect was less gratifying. Did an unwillingness to threaten, much
less use, ground forces or to deliver lower-level and more accurate
aerial attacks exacerbate and extend the suffering of the people
we intended to help? A counterfactual but plausible argument suggests
that military tactics that would have posed greater risks to friendly
forces would also have ended the conflict more swiftly and, quite
possibly, with much smaller loss of life overall.
Casualty aversion hindered operational effectiveness
in Kosovo in other ways as well. For instance, Task Force HAWK,
which combined Apache attack helicopters and the Army Tactical Missile
System, was not given permission to attack inside Kosovo because,
among other things, Serbian targets, having been dispersed, were
no longer appropriate targets for the Apaches, which had been designed
to attack massed armored formations. The modest rewards expected
from flushing out dispersed Serb units was outweighed in the minds
of many Americans involved by the high risk of casualties.21 An
Air Force officer assigned to one of the key NATO intelligence centers
said, "If he [Slobodan Milosevic] kills one U.S. pilot, he
wins. . . . [H]e knows that, and we know that."22 This view
had much to do with keeping Task Force HAWK sidelined.
MASS VERSUS ELITE OPINION
The poll upon which analysts Peter Feaver and
Christopher Gelpi based their assertion of the relative willingness
of the mass public to countenance casualties was conducted between
September 1998 and June 1999. It addressed hypothetical missions
to "stabilize a democratic government in Congo," "prevent
Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction," and "defend
Taiwan against invasion by China." In each case the public
identified a higher level of acceptable casualties than did samples
of elite military leaders and civilian elite leaders. Significantly,
in each case the number of acceptable casualties to the public was
in the thousands. The question even included a description of how
many casualties the U.S. had actually suffered in Somalia (forty-three),
the Gulf War (383), Korea (approximately fifty-four thousand), Vietnam
(approximately fifty-eight thousand) and World War II (approximately
four hundred thousand). Results:
|Highest number of American military
deaths acceptable to . . .
|Stabilize democratic government
|Prevent Iraq from
|Defend Taiwan from Chinese
Polling sample: 623 military officers, 683 nonveteran civilian elites,
1,001 adults from the general public. In addition to Feaver and
Gelpi's Washington Post article (note 17), see Triangle Institute
for Security Studies, "Project on the Gap between the Military
and Civilian Society: Digest of Findings and Studies," Conference
on the Military and Civilian Society, Cantigny Conference Center,
1st Division Museum, 28-29 October 1999, available at www.poli.duke.edu/civmil/summary_digest.pdf,
The negative effect of excessive casualty aversion
was evident in the war in Afghanistan, despite the clear, self-defense
justification for the operation and its overwhelming public support.
Addressing the nation when the bombs began
to fall on 7 October, Bush said the troops might have to make the
ultimate sacrifice of their lives. Despite such warnings, there
is some evidence that U.S. officials have questioned whether Americans
would accept significant casualties, in spite of polls indicating
that they would. An adviser to senior Pentagon officials said concerns
about high American casualties led the Bush administration to craft
a strategy that relied on air power and small numbers of commandos,
as opposed to tens of thousands of American ground troops. "They
are risk-averse about casualties," said the adviser, who requested
anonymity. "They didn't know what we were facing."23
An important cost of this approach was the
failure to capture or destroy large numbers of al-Qa'ida and Taliban
forces-and possibly Osama Bin Laden himself-during the Tora Bora
fight of December 2001.
It was widely acknowledged that the attacks
on al-Qa'ida and its Taliban hosts had been forced upon Americans
as a matter of self-defense. As after Pearl Harbor, Americans were
strongly committed to fighting the perpetrators of mass murder and
their accomplices. Polls conducted in the months after 11 September
2001 demonstrated willingness to accept the risks of significant
ground force operations, even high casualties.24
The initial U.S. military forces on the ground
included small contingents of special operations forces coordinating
the support by American aerial attacks of the operations of Afghan
allies. The strategy worked brilliantly in the first phase, unseating
the Taliban government and seizing major population centers. However,
even when the enemy was pushed into the mountainous hinterlands,
the same American strategy continued-a low-level commitment of U.S.
ground and air power, in favor of heavy reliance on local coalition
partners. In retrospect, it appears that as a result large numbers
of enemy soldiers and leaders were able in December 2001 to escape
into neighboring Pakistan or remote areas of Afghanistan.25 Having
interests different from those of the American forces, local Afghan
coalition members appear to have made deals that permitted these
[An Afghan] commander, Hajji Zaher, said in
an interview in Jalalabad that he had pleaded with Special Forces
officers to block the trails to Pakistan. "The Americans would
not listen," said Mr. Zaher, 38. "Their attitude was,
'We must kill the enemy, but we must remain absolutely safe.' This
is crazy. If they had been willing to take casualties to capture
Osama then, perhaps they'd have to take fewer casualties now."26
A more substantial American ground force might
have crippled al-Qa'ida-that is, would have better achieved the
national objective at Tora Bora. A stronger American effort could
have rendered ineffective enemy fighters intent on continuing attacks
against American or allied forces in Afghanistan, maybe even disrupted
or destroyed cells dedicated to further terrorist attacks on the
United States itself. The additional risks would have been easy
to justify. If casualty aversion among military leaders was a significant
factor in this misjudgment, the implication is that the military,
for institutionally dysfunctional reasons, may be unwilling to accept
prudent risks in the pursuit of national interests-even when public
support is unequivocal.
This unhealthy state of affairs is a factor
not only at the upper levels of military and civilian leadership.
As emphasis on risk avoidance filters down the chain of command,
junior commanders and their soldiers become aware that low-risk
behavior is expected and act accordingly. As Brigadier General Daniel
Kaufman, dean of academics at the U.S. Military Academy at West
Point, has said,
What it [priority on force protection] says
is officers no longer have the right to use their judgment, to make
decisions based on the situation on the ground and act decisively
in accordance with what they believe to be the requirements of carrying
out their mission. You do not deploy somewhere to protect yourself.
If you want to do that you stay in Kansas. You deploy somewhere
to accomplish a mission. And, oh, by the way, an ancillary part
of that is you never put your soldiers in harm's way recklessly,
but you understand that in operations that's the nature of war.27
Concerned about the effects of any casualties,
then, commanders and small-unit leaders become hesitant to act,
fearing that even small events at the tactical level could have
important strategic effects.28
Recent studies have revealed the existence
in the services of a degree of safety consciousness and focus on
risk assessment that reinforces risk aversion in general.29 To prevent
the automatic investigations and presumptions of error that attend
any death-in peace or war-commanders make tremendous efforts to
avoid such an event and, in some cases, to shield themselves from
blame if a fatality does occur. Such efforts, however well intentioned
or understandable in themselves, are inappropriate and even professionally
unethical if they override mission accomplishment. "Force protectionism"
as an end in itself can corrupt professional standards of service
to society, as represented by the assignment of the mission in the
first place.30 It places the interests of the members of the armed
forces and of the institutions themselves first, and the mission
Another negative effect of embracing the unsupported
conventional wisdom on casualty aversion is that it needlessly encourages
American adversaries. With respect to the 1999 war in Kosovo, the
NATO commander, General Wesley Clark, observed,
There was continuous commentary on the fear
of NATO to accept military casualties. This, unfortunately, is unlikely
to be unique to this operation. Of course, using friendly personnel
on the ground risks friendly casualties. Neither political nor military
leaders will want to take these risks. But our adversaries will
exploit our reluctance by facing us with the dilemma of either inflicting
accidental injuries to civilians or risking our own people on their
There are numerous examples of the perception
by foreigners that the United States is unwilling to risk casualties.32
This perception has been a factor in the considerations of the nation's
enemies. Saddam Hussein before the 1991 Gulf War, Slobodan Milosevic
before the Kosovo War in 1999, and Osama Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida
generally in 2001 all appear to have had great confidence that the
United States lacked the moral courage to face a deadly military
confrontation. This assurance made them less susceptible to diplomatic
maneuvers or military threats. They seem to have considered the
prospect of U.S. military action, particularly the use of ground
troops, a bluff.
During the first Gulf war, it appears that
the central element of Saddam's strategy was to keep his forces
in place during the air war and wait for the ground attack, when,
he believed, they would be able to inflict massive casualties and
therefore cause the United States to give up. "Saddam Hussein
clearly believed that his greatest chance of success lay in inflicting
the maximum number of casualties on coalition forces through close
combat."33 In the 2003 war, the apparent Iraqi plan to draw
the coalition into an urban battle in Baghdad seemed to have presumed
that the Iraqi army would cause unacceptable U.S. casualties. The
guerrilla-style war that (at this writing) still continues in Iraq,
whether representing the organized resistance of remnants of the
former regime or external terrorist groups, also seems based on
the premise that simply inflicting casualties on American forces
will break the will of the American public and thereby lead to withdrawal.
The supposed American glass jaw with respect
to casualties is often connected to the battle in Mogadishu, the
capital of Somalia, in 1993. In another incident that seemed to
reinforce this point, Haitian thugs prevented the USS Harlan County
(LST 1196) docking and offloading troops in Port-au-Prince just
a week after the battle in Mogadishu.34 Osama Bin Laden was to cite
Somalia as a reason to expect to be able to force the United States
to withdraw from the Middle East. In his 1996 declaration of war
on the United States, Osama Bin Laden dismissed the idea that the
United States would be able to sustain support for a military response
if it suffered casualties.
Your most disgraceful case was in Somalia,
where after vigorous propaganda about the power of the USA and its
post cold war leadership of the new world order you moved tens of
thousands of international force, including twenty eight thousand
American soldiers into Somalia. However, when tens of your soldiers
were killed in minor battles and one American Pilot was dragged
in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment,
humiliation, defeat and your dead with you. Clinton appeared in
front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but
these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal. You have
been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence
and weaknesses became very clear.35
To Bin Laden, the fact that the bombings in
1998 of two U.S. embassies in Africa elicited only cruise missile
attacks in retaliation was further confirmation of this weakness.36
Ultimately, the planners of the suicide attacks launched against
the USS Cole and then the World Trade Center and Pentagon appear
to have relied heavily on the presumption of acute casualty sensitivity
by Americans.37 In an October 2001 al-Qa'ida videotape (released
just as the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan commenced), Osama Bin Laden's
lieutenant, Ayman Zawahri, expressed a conviction that the American
will to fight would weaken quickly after a few casualties. The United
States would retreat, just as it had "fled in panic from Lebanon
Casualty/Technology Trade-offs, Force Structure,
and Weapon Programs
The American way of war has long been characterized
by a search for ways to substitute firepower for manpower.39 In
its most recent manifestation, this laudable quest has emphasized
the utility of airpower, applied at stand-off range, to accomplish
coercive aims. Airpower has been a valuable force multiplier for
the United States and is regularly advocated in terms not only of
effectiveness but of the higher casualties that ground operations
would likely produce. Stating the argument directly, Edward Luttwak
has suggested that the United States focus more on the development
of long-range attack forces, particularly aviation, as an alternative
to ground forces, which he asserts are less usable in practice because
of casualty aversion on the part of the American public.40
Casualty-aversion arguments also provide convenient
support for a variety of particular weapons programs. A typical
example is the Crusader artillery program. Informed that the system
was under consideration for cancellation, Army officials attempted
to defend the system by lobbying members of Congress that its termination
would put soldiers' lives "at risk."41 This argument,
however, was more sensitive than the Army knew and seems to have
had much to do with the rather nasty and public manner in which
the issue was finally resolved: the cancellation occurred more swiftly
than originally envisioned, the Army was flailed in public, and
the person responsible for drafting the "talking points"
lost his job.42
Another example was opposition to STREETFIGHTER,
a prospective naval weapon system, on the premise that it posed
a casualty risk. The concept was to complement the small number
of high-cost large warships that currently dominate the Navy force
structure with more numerous, smaller ships. Like the PT boats of
World War II, these boats would provide flexibility and a capability
to attack close to shore. Larger numbers and smaller crews make
individual STREETFIGHTER ships less indispensable to the overall
force. Unlike the PT boats of World War II, however, they would
not be expendable-because of the potential effect of the loss of
even their small crews.43
Exaggerated concern about casualties can inhibit
the selection and development of new systems that can add important
capabilities and improve the effectiveness of the armed forces.
It may also impede the progress of transformational tactics and
approaches-swarming, dispersed operations, network-centric warfare-that
by their nature would not provide the degree of force protection
afforded by large platforms and massed formations.
Self-Constraint in the Use of Armed Forces
Another negative effect is the failure or reluctance
to use the U.S. armed forces at all, due to mistaken beliefs about
the public's likely response. To the degree that policy makers believe
that the American public cannot endure casualties, leaders may well
decide that the risk of casualties is disproportionate to the value
of an objective and refrain from taking action in situations. This
effect was apparent in debate over use of force in Bosnia (1992-94)
and in Rwanda (1994).44 Failure to intervene probably saved U.S.
lives, but counterfactual (yet plausible) scenarios in both cases
suggest that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved
by intervention, and peace and stability reestablished much earlier.
Assertions of casualty aversion may simply
reflect the normative preference of individuals for what the public
ought to find acceptable or not. Speaking of the pursuit of Serb
war criminals under the Dayton accords, the former commander of
the Implementation Force in Bosnia, Admiral Leighton Smith, gives
What's it going to take and what's it going
to cost? Then I've got to feed that back to the politicians. . .
. "All right, you want me to do this, this is the price."
Remember what I said about the war criminals [whom the military
might be asked to arrest]? "You want me to do that, it's going
to cost you lives. We're going to get people killed doing this.
I might have to go to Kansas and tell Johnny's mama that he got
his head blown off trying to arrest [Ratko] Mladic [a Bosnian Serb
military leader and indicted war criminal] in a coffee shop somewhere.
Or better, in a bunker."45
In this formulation, it is not a matter of
whether the public is willing to accept casualties but this officer's
opinion that the public ought not to accept casualties for this
mission. In this way the public's supposed casualty aversion may
become a screen for other objections to a particular mission. It
may be easier and more morally persuasive to invoke casualty concerns
than to pursue a complex or sensitive argument.
The concept of the American public's casualty
aversion is a myth-an inappropriate oversimplification of an important
issue. The fundamental policy need is to reject this oversimplification-leaders
must understand the more complex reality of the public's reaction
to casualties, a reality that in fact affords wide latitude. With
a better grasp of this issue, national leaders can avoid errors
that distort the policy-making process and corrupt professional
Latitude for Leadership
The likely response of the American public
to casualties is primarily an issue of leadership. As many studies
have noted, even when support for a military operation wanes over
time there is no compelling evidence that the public expects either
immediate withdrawal or escalation simply in response to casualties.
The American public weighs the costs and benefits of the use of
force, and the interests involved. In general the public takes a
permissive view, one that allows national leaders tremendous discretion
to launch military operations and to persevere in them even as casualties
mount. It's about leadership.
Elected civilian leaders play a critical role
in shaping the public's response to casualties and in characterizing
the missions for which they may be incurred. The dynamic is somewhat
circular-the extent of public willingness to abide casualties is
a function of the degree of consensus among policy leaders, whereas
public reaction to cost has much to do with how elites present the
situation. Congressional leaders and their agreement with the administration,
or lack of it, have an important effect on the public's sensitivity
to casualties. Average citizens perceive policy elites-privy to
classified material and detailed analysis, subjected to innumerable
inputs from interest and advocacy groups, and served by extensive
staffs-as better placed than themselves to weigh costs and benefits.
Unsurprisingly, opinion on such major issues as the use of force
reflects a "follower effect," whereby individuals take
their cues from the nation's civilian and military leaders. There
is also evidence that members of political parties tend to favor
the positions and policies supported by their parties' leaders-particularly
when those leaders include the president.46
This understanding also reveals a certain circularity
in the Weinberger/Powell rules-that is, though it is undeniably
desirable to have American public support for any military operation,
the public takes its cue from the political leadership as a whole.
Broad agreement among national leaders tends to give the public
confidence that the costs of action, including casualties, are being
incurred in support of important national interests. If the country's
leaders are unsure, the public is unlikely to accept the price willingly.
The public's tolerance for a particular level
of casualties in a specific case is not predictable. Moreover, there
is considerable evidence that casualties exceeding original expectations
may generate greater scrutiny over military operations in question,
without changing the commitment to the objectives sought. In fact,
it is common for such sacrifices to cement more firmly the commitment
of those who favored force in the first place. Casualties already
suffered, far from being dismissed as "sunk costs," are
often perceived as requiring redemption, increasing the value of
the original purpose.
Not only are the dynamics of casualties difficult
to anticipate, there is a natural tendency in the midst of war for
casualties to trigger passions that can overwhelm reasoned consideration
of government policy. It is valuable to recall Clausewitz's metaphor
of the "remarkable trinity" of passion, creativity, and
As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies
always make war a remarkable trinity-composed of primordial violence,
hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural
force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative
spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as
an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.47
Policy makers are responsible for managing
the application of reason in the realm of war. This responsibility
extends to a clear-headed understanding of the costs and benefits
of military operations and the manner in which their results are
likely to shape the public attitude.
The Cost-Benefit Policy Equation
A nuanced understanding of the public's willingness
to accept casualties should frame the policy process. Leaders should
be careful not to let overemphasis on casualty avoidance lead to
risk-averse behavior that jeopardizes American policy interests.
A misperception of the public's willingness to accept casualties
distorts the cost-benefit calculations of civilian and military
leaders as they consider when to use military force and how. As
General Edward Meyer, former Chief of Staff of the Army, has warned,
"No commander likes to lose soldiers, but if he starts out
with [no casualties] as his goal, nobody is going to accomplish
The public's understanding of casualties is
neither capricious nor fickle. The emotional commitment of liberal
societies to the dignity and worth of individuals is part of the
foundation of those societies. Human costs weigh heavily-but not
too heavily. The public understands and accepts that risks to individuals
are sometimes required by the larger interests of society. The public
wants to minimize casualties-not just among members of the American
military but also innocent civilians and sometimes even enemy combatants.
However, as numerous studies have shown, the public understands
in essence Clausewitz's dictum that "war is merely the continuation
of policy by other means."49 Military force is used as a means
to a policy end; it is difficult to consider the costs (of which
casualties are but one) in isolation from the benefits sought. This
is true both in the midst of conflicts (for example, Korea and Vietnam)
and in the consideration of future military operations. It is extremely
difficult to articulate succinctly and in advance all possible ends
of policy against which casualties might be measured. Moreover,
the value of each new casualty is of uncertain subjective weight
that varies tremendously from one citizen to the next.
Evocations of the casualty-aversion assertion
by national leaders can, as we have seen, cause serious problems.
They can embolden adversaries and cause them to overestimate the
strategic value of inflicting casualties. They can undermine the
deterrent effect of American threats that otherwise might have averted
the use of force. Casualty aversion can also give the impression
that the United States is trying to shift to allies casualty risks
that it is unwilling to accept itself.
Technology has significant drawbacks here;
the technology/casualty trade-off debate has been a long one. Again,
it is perfectly laudable to pursue methods that minimize casualties;
arguing the converse would be ludicrous. More important, however,
are the strategic effectiveness and opportunity costs that accrue
from the use of various military instruments in singular, sequential
or synchronized ways. The casualty-aversion issue can become a surrogate
for decades-old interservice arguments between airpower and ground-power
advocates. Such often-misdirected disputes focus on the special
interests and constituencies of particular means at the expense
of national strategic ends. That an option is ostensibly cheaper
should not relieve it from the ultimate tests of military effectiveness
in achieving national ends. The conviction that technology can or
must substitute for risk to human life has a pernicious tendency
to distort the consideration of risks and rewards. Cheaper, less
risky means may also make more likely the use of force in situations
of marginal importance-in which the prestige and effectiveness of
the United States and its allies may require escalation to achieve
The Professional Military Ethic
How the American public is likely to react
to casualties in a particular case is not within the scope of military
judgment; officers must stick to their own professional expertise
and ethics when rendering advice on the use of armed forces. One
reason that concern about casualties has been allowed to cross over
into military planning is the Weinberger/Powell doctrine. In particular,
its fifth test-which requires "reasonable assurance we will
have the support of the American people"-seems to require judgment
by national security planners about American public opinion.51
Predicting the likelihood and magnitude of
casualties in a particular mission is in itself an appropriate professional
judgment, firmly grounded in expert knowledge and military experience.
Assessments of the impact of casualties on military effectiveness
are similarly appropriate; for example, a planner would properly
recommend against a course of action in which casualties were likely
to render the force unable to complete the mission. However, judgments
of the "social weight" of casualties or their effect on
public opinion are matters for civilian leaders.
Of course, urging civilian leaders to consider
that factor in their decisions to use armed force is appropriate.
It is a very weighty matter, touching on important values; military
leaders should be confident that civilian leaders have carefully
addressed it. However, suggesting in advance what level of casualties,
if any, the American public would accept, as an element of considered
military judgment, is inappropriate. It represents a corruption
of the professional military ethic. Military leaders should recognize
the issue of casualty sensitivity for what it is-a question of how
potential costs will be valued in terms of policy aims. "If
a military officer expresses preferences among policy goals while
acting in an official capacity, that officer may come to be seen
as more a political figure than a military expert."52 Such
a reputation would undermine the professional credibility of the
officer on other issues.53 There is no objective, a priori standard
for predicting the American public's toleration of casualties on
behalf of national interests-vital, important, routine, or otherwise.
There is no doubt that military leaders have
a profound responsibility to their subordinates and to society more
broadly to minimize casualties and take all prudent and reasonable
measures to protect the precious human resources entrusted to their
care. As servants of society, senior officers are obliged to provide
the best possible professional assessment of military alternatives
and their likely costs. Advice on military capacity to achieve objectives
is appropriate; opinions as to whether the costs or risks are acceptable
exceed the professional responsibility of officers.
This is a significant civil-military relations
issue. Assessment of the military costs and risks of a given operation
in support of national policy is an appropriate element of professional
military judgment and the management of violence, what Clausewitz
called the "grammar of war."54 To decide whether the costs
and risks are worth it is to judge the policy itself. That is a
decision reserved for civilian leaders.
Public casualty aversion is a myth. There is
no evidence that the American public has an intrinsic, uncritical
aversion to U.S. military casualties. There is strong evidence that
the American public seriously considers the costs and benefits of
particular missions and that it judges the acceptability of casualties
against the value of objectives. Historically, the relationship
between public support for military operations vis-‡-vis the
level of casualties has been a function of national leadership.
The myth's persistence as widespread conventional
wisdom is harmful and should be vigorously opposed. The myth impedes
efforts to achieve national objectives. National leaders-civilian
and military-should work to dispel the presumption that the American
public will not endure military casualties; this would place debates
on national objectives on a firmer foundation. Dispelling the casualty-aversion
myth would allow more precise and appropriate consideration of when
to use military force, more effective and efficient political and
military decisions, and more accurately communicate American resolve
to potential adversaries.
1. Senate Armed Services Committee,
Hearing on the Nomination of William Cohen as Secretary of Defense,
22 January 1997, available at pcinegi.udlap.mx/infoUSA/politics/biograph/2142.htm.
2. Henry Kissinger, quoted
in C. David Kotok, "Vietnam's Lessons Still Shaping U.S. Policy,
Practice," Omaha World-Herald, 14 September 1999, p. 1; Maj.
Gen. William Nash quote cited in Rick Atkinson, "Warriors without
a War: U.S. Peacekeepers in Bosnia Adjusting to New Tasks: Arbitration,
Bluff, Restraint," Washington Post, 14 April 1996, p. A1; Edward
N. Luttwak, "Toward Post-Heroic Warfare," Foreign Affairs
74, no. 3 (May/June 1995), p. 115; Senator William Cohen, quoted
in Charles Lane, "The Double Man," New Republic, 28 July
1997, available at www.tnr.com/archive/07/072898/lane072897.html
(date of original quote not identified).
3. Steven Kull and I. M. Destler,
Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism (Washington,
D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999). Kull and Destler "conducted
a series of eighty three interviews with persons selected from four
groups: twelve members and sixteen staff of the U.S. Congress; nineteen
officials of the executive branch; eighteen representatives of the
media and eighteen senior professionals at nongovernmental organizations"
4. To clarify the nature of
this conventional wisdom among policy elites, I conducted over twenty
interviews with members of major news organizations, with particular
emphasis on correspondents, producers, and analysts experienced
in defense and national security interests. I also conducted interviews
with over a dozen senior military leaders (current and former).
The focus of the interviews was the respondents' perceptions of
the American public's aversion to casualties.
5. William Safire, quoted by
Richard Falk, "The Vietnam Syndrome," Nation, 9 July 2001.
6. Eric V. Larson, "Ends
and Means in the Democratic Conversation: Understanding the Role
of Casualties in Support for U.S. Military Operations," Ph.D.
dissertation, RAND Graduate School, 1996, pp. 33-36.
7. Defense Press Office, Assistant
Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), "Public Affairs Guidance-Casualty
and Mortuary Affairs-Operation Enduring Freedom," 1 November
8. For a detailed treatment
of this subject, see Susan Moeller, Compassion Fatigue: How the
Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York: Routledge,
9. For one example of this
interpretation, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, speaking during a panel
discussion on the so-called CNN Effect, "I think there's no
question that TV pictures of the dead GI has a lot to do with our
leaving." "'The CNN Effect': How 24-Hour News Coverage
Affects Government Decisions and Public Opinion," Brookings/Harvard
Forum: Press Coverage and the War on Terrorism, transcript of panel
discussion, 23 January 2002, available at www.brook.edu/dybdocroot/comm/transcripts/20020123.htm.
10. Caspar Weinberger, Fighting
for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon, appendix: "Text
of Remarks by Secretary of Defense Weinberger at the National Press
Club, November 28, 1984" (New York: Warner Books, 1991), pp.
11. For an example of this,
see descriptions of General Powell's concerns in Michael R. Gordon
and Bernard E. Trainor, The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the
Conflict in the Gulf (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), pp. 34, 130-31.
12. Luttwak, "Toward Post-Heroic
Warfare," p. 115.
13. Charles Moskos, "Our
Will to Fight Depends on Who Is Willing to Die," Wall Street
Journal, 20 March 2002, p. A22; Mark Shields, "In Power but
Not in Peril," Washington Post, 15 October 2002, p. 19.
14. Eric V. Larson, Casualties
and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support
for U.S. Military Operations (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1996).
The larger study from which this is drawn is Larson's dissertation,
"Ends and Means in the Democratic Conversation: Understanding
the Role of Casualties in Support for U.S. Military Operations."
15. Ibid., p. xv.
16. Ibid., p. 66.
17. Peter Feaver and Christopher
Gelpi, "Casualty Aversion: How Many Deaths Are Acceptable?
A Surprising Answer," Washington Post, 7 November 1999, p.
18. Kull and Destler, Misreading
the Public, pp. 81-112.
19. For example, see a CBS
News Poll released 24 September 2001, based on a nationwide random
sample of 1,216 adults, 20-23 September 2001. Before military action
began in Afghanistan, 72 percent of the public supported military
action against whoever had been responsible for the terrorist attacks,
even if that meant "thousands of American military personnel
will be killed." ABC News polls since 11 September 2001 also
continue to show strong support for military action, even when the
public believes there will be significant U.S. military casualties.
There is evidence of increasing popular concern about casualties
since the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Nonetheless, there
is still evidence of strong support for seeing the mission through
in the face of mounting casualties. In an August 2003 ABC News poll,
69 percent of those polled favored the statement, "The United
States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order
is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties,"
versus 27 percent who favored withdrawal of U.S. military forces
even if civil order had not been restored.
20. For a recent example of
this analysis from a somewhat surprising source, see Henry Kissinger,
Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), pp. 834-35.
21. Dana Priest, "Risks
and Restraints: Why the Apaches Never Flew in Kosovo," Washington
Post, 29 December 1999, p. A1.
22. Gen. Dennis Reimer and
an unnamed U.S. Air Force officer who provided a classified intelligence
briefing on Yugoslav air defense measures for the Apache pilots
of Task Force Hawk (assigned to the Joint Analysis Center in Molesworth,
United Kingdom), quoted in Sean Naylor, "Sidelined: How America
Won a War without the Army," Army Times, 16 August 1999, p.
23. Tom Bowman, "War Casualties
Could Test Public's Resolve," Baltimore Sun, 18 November 2001.
24. Gary Langer, "Support
for War: Do They Mean It?" Polling Report 17, no. 18 (24 September
25. Michael Gordon, "Rumsfeld
Burdened by Stilling Echoes of the Grisly Raid in Somalia,"
New York Times, 7 March 2002.
26. John F. Burns, "10-Month
bin Laden Mystery: Dead or Alive?" New York Times, 30 September
2002, p. A1.
27. Serge Schmemann, "Word
for Word/The Long Gray Line: For Tomorrow's Army, Cadets Full of
Questions," New York Times, 8 July 2001, "Week in Review,"
28. Atkinson, "Warriors
without a War," p. A1. The article describes the concerns of
commanders that any casualties will have a tremendous impact on
the mission, even the cancellation of the mission and the withdrawal
of U.S. forces. Consequently, there is tremendous anxiety about
force protection and the actions of even the most junior members
of the peacekeeping force. The point is reinforced by the high-level
attention paid to the first fatality of the operation, a sergeant
killed trying to disarm a land mine against orders.
29. Center for Strategic and
International Studies, American Military Culture in the Twenty-first
Century, Report of the CSIS International Security Program (Washington,
D.C.: CSIS, February 2000).
30. Don M. Snider, John A.
Nagl, and Tony Pfaff, Army Professionalism, the Military Ethic and
Officership in the 21st Century (Carlisle, Penna.: Strategic Studies
Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1999).
31. Wesley K. Clark, Waging
Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat (New York:
PublicAffairs, 2001), p. 436.
32. Many instances of the conventional
wisdom on U.S. casualty aversion have been voiced by foreigners.
Examples include: an Indian commentator on the Gulf War cited in
Thomas G. Mahnken, "America's Next War," Washington Quarterly
16, no. 3 (Summer 1993), p. 171; the commander of Iran's Revolutionary
Guard Corps and a senior Chinese government official cited in John
A. Gentry, "Military Force in an Age of National Cowardice,"
Washington Quarterly 21, no. 4 (Autumn 1998), p. 179; a European
diplomat cited by Justin Brown, "Risks of Waging Only Risk-Free
War," Christian Science Monitor, 24 May 2000, p. 1; and the
prominent British military historian John Keegan, cited in Atkinson,
"Warriors without War," p. A1.
33. Mahnken, "America's
Next War," p. 171.
34. David Halberstam, War in
a Time of Peace (New York: Scribner's, 2001), pp. 271-73.
35. Osama Bin Laden, "Declaration
of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy
Places," 23 August 1996, available at www.comw.org/pda/fulltext/960823binladen.html.
36. Avigdor Haselkorn, "Martyrdom:
The Most Powerful Weapon," Los Angeles Times, 3 December 2000,
38. Ayman Zawahri, quoted in
James S. Robbins, "Chinook Down," National Review Online,
5 March 2002, available at www.nationalreview .com/robbins/robbins030502.asp.
39. Russell Weigley, The American
Way of War: A History of the United States Military Strategy and
Policy (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1973), p. xii.
40. Luttwak, "A Post-Heroic
Military Policy," pp. 33-44.
41. Rowan Scarborough, "Army
Investigating Officials Who Defended Crusader," Washington
Times, 4 May 2002, available at www .washtimes.com/national/20020504
42. Ibid. and Joe Burlas, "Civilian
Deputy Resigns over Crusader Flap," Army News Service, 10 May
43. Greg Jaffe, "Risk
Assessment: Plans for a Small Ship Pose Big Questions for the U.S.
Navy-The Street Fighter Would Add Punch in Close Combat; Are Deaths
Acceptable?" Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2001, p. A1.
44. For Bosnia, Luttwak, "A
Post-Heroic Military Policy," p. 39. For Rwanda, Steven Livingston,
in comments during panel discussion, "The CNN Effect,"
BrookingsHarvard Forum, 23 January 2002.
45. Leighton W. Smith, Jr.
[Adm., USN], interview by Harry Kreisler, "Shaping the U.S.
Role in Peacekeeping Operations," University of California
Conversations with History, 1 April 1997, available at globetrotter.berkeley
46. For descriptions and discussion
of the follower effect, see John E. Mueller, War, Presidents and
Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973), pp. 69-74, 122-40; and Larson,
Casualties and Consensus, pp. 76-79.
47. Carl von Clausewitz, On
War, ed. Michael E. Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
Univ. Press, 1976), p. 87.
48. Quoted in Dan Fesperman,
"'Casualty Aversion' Overcome by Terror," Baltimore Sun,
17 September 2001, p. 1A.
49. Clausewitz, On War, p.
50. A good example of this
is the dynamic of the Kosovo intervention. The initial hope was
to use only limited airpower, but lack of quick success increased
the willingness to escalate, even to include ground forces, which
had been ruled out at the beginning. See Halberstam, War in a Time
of Peace, pp. 468-78.
51. Quoted in Suzanne C. Nielsen,
"Rules of the Game? The Weinberger Doctrine and the American
Use of Force," in The Future of the Army Profession, Don M.
Snider and Gayle L. Watkins, project directors (Boston: McGraw-Hill,
2002), p. 216.
52. Ibid., p. 218.
53. Ibid., p. 219.
54. Clausewitz, On War, p.
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