With more than 800 U.S. military personnel killed and more than 4,600 wounded, U.S. casualties in Iraq over the past 14 months now compare to those of several of the smaller wars in the nation's history.
In total casualties -- that is, combined dead and wounded -- the U.S. military now has suffered more in Iraq than in the Spanish-American War. The wounded tally in Iraq -- but not the death total -- has surpassed the figures for the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.
Some military historians and other specialists are beginning to see the Iraq campaign as at least as significant as those other conflicts in its impact on the nation's politics and public opinion.
"Iraq began as an intervention, has now become a minor war and stands to become a medium war as time passes," said Kalev Sepp, a former Special Forces officer who teaches defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.
"The Iraq war is a genuine minor war in the American experience," said James Burk, a military sociologist at Texas A&M University and one of the nation's leading experts on the impact of military casualties on public opinion.
By that, Burk said, he meant that it has become "at least the equal of the Mexican War and Spanish-American War in its capacity to make or break political leaders and eventually to affect who Americans think they are in the world."
With the Iraq war still going on, it is impossible to predict how historians and the rest of the American public will ultimately regard it. Burk and others warn that if the pace of casualties in Iraq keeps up, the war's impact on American life could become more like that of the Vietnam War than of those earlier conflicts.
While historians agree that the Iraq intervention is becoming a significant event in the nation's history, they disagree sharply about several other points, such as how comparable it really is to conventional wars. And a few historians, along with some military officers, argue that the fighting in Iraq really is part of a larger war against Islamic extremism and therefore should not be considered in isolation.
The key to much of the disagreement is that most of the nation's smaller wars occurred in the 19th century. American life and culture were so different then, some say, that it is hard to compare the impact of casualties then and now.
But there is general agreement that small numbers of casualties have more political impact now than they did in 1813 or 1847.
"Up through World War I, high casualties were looked at with pride, and bluntly, a lot of people were a lot tougher then -- mentally more than physically," said Robert L. Goldich, a defense expert at the Congressional Research Service. "Death was everywhere, and lots of people died early from disease or complications from injuries or childbirth." In addition, he said, in the dominant political ideology of the time, combat deaths were mourned but were also held to be "glorious and necessary and to be celebrated."
Kurt Hackemer, a specialist in 19th-century U.S. military history at the University of South Dakota, also noted that combat casualties had less immediacy in an age of slow, image-less communications.
"For the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, people read about -- not saw -- casualties well after the fact," Hackemer said. "Because there were no real images associated with casualties, I think they remained something of an abstraction, which allow ordinary citizens to think about them in highly idealized terms."
Some historians say that in some ways, the Iraq effort looks like the long-running, low-intensity conflict of the Army's fighting against Native Americans in the Old West. "Our Army today has a lot in common with the professional army that fought against Native Americans in the American West during the 19th century," said G. Kurt Piehler, a University of Tennessee military historian. Both forces were not only professional, he said, but also relatively small and all-volunteer.
But several other experts said that in size and political impact, the Iraq war now most resembles the U.S. anti-insurgency effort in the Philippines that lasted from 1899 to 1902, with a total of 7,192 dead and wounded U.S. troops.
"Conceptually, I would say that we are closer to the Philippine Insurrection than any of those prior conflicts," Hackemer said. "We are fighting an insurgency that has some measure -- difficult to determine -- of popular support as we attempt to install a government that fits our concept of 'representative' for the Iraqi people."
Indeed, the leading expert on the Philippines war said he finds the U.S. military experience there strikingly similar to the U.S. foray into Iraq.
"Both the Philippine and Iraq wars were seen as imperial conflicts and as radical departures from previous foreign policy," said Texas A&M's Brian M. Linn. He ticked off several other specific similarities.
"In both wars, there was a somewhat justified concern that the U.S. was invading a country that did not present a clear and present danger, and overthrowing an indigenous government," Linn said. "In both wars, the initial conventional operations were successful and the ensuing guerrilla campaign was far longer, more costly and more controversial. In both wars, the Army and political leadership failed to appreciate the diversity and intensity of popular resistance and dismissed it as followers of a tyrant, bandits and terrorists. In both wars, allegations of atrocities against civilians -- indiscriminate fire, torture and property destruction -- tarnished the Army's reputation and created widespread indigenous resentment."
In the Philippines, he said, that anger still persists, a century later.
Linn also offered one other similarity: In 1900, he said, the Republican candidate for president, William McKinley, was a war hero, while the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, "had used his political connections to get a commission in the National Guard and avoid combat."
But he also saw one major difference: He thinks the plodding, low-tech army of a century ago, with its roots in the Indian wars, was better at putting down an insurrection than is today's Army, "which has devoted itself to high-intensity machine warfare designed to rapidly knock out an opponent."
One thing that all three campaigns -- against the Native Americans, against the Filipino rebels and in Iraq -- have in common is that they were not, or are not being, waged against conventional militaries or states. That makes them fundamentally different from most other U.S. wars, said Dale C. Smith, chairman of the department of medical history at the Defense Department's own medical school, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
"Wars are acute events, like hemorrhages from cuts," Smith said. "The Philippines, the Indian campaigns of the late 19th century and Iraq are all 'chronic diseases' of the body politic." That is, he said, "like a gastric ulcer, they bleed us slowly and steadily, with occasional flare-ups of acute bleeding and pain. Over time, they can make us anemic and sap our strength, and most importantly, they cannot just be bandaged and gotten over -- they have to be managed with lifestyle changes and complex therapeutic regimens."