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A LOOK AT . . . Casualty Aversion
How Many Deaths Are Acceptable? A Surprising Answer

By Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi

Sunday, November 7, 1999; Page B03

The good news is that we drove Serbian troops out of Kosovo without suffering any U.S. combat fatalities, a testament to American military professionalism and prowess.

The bad news is that the foreign policy community, both inside and outside the U.S. government, generally believes that Americans demand a casualty-free victory as the price of supporting any military intervention abroad.

These influential elites are wrong. They have bought into a powerful myth, born during the Vietnam War and cemented during the ill-fated Somalia action of October 1993, that Americans are casualty-shy.

Though the belief has become conventional wisdom, it is not well supported by public opinion polls. A careful analysis of surveys that we conducted last fall and winter shows convincingly that the general public is far more willing to tolerate combat losses than civilian policymakers--or senior military officers.

The casualty-aversion myth has no doubt been exacerbated by President Clinton's awkward relations with the military and thus constitutes part of his troubled legacy in foreign policy. But our research suggests the issue will outlast this president. Coming to terms with it will be a major challenge for the next administration.

Defenders of the "we can't take it anymore" school of thought offer no concrete evidence for their position. Instead, they retreat to anecdotes about the Somalia debacle and the "CNN effect." They say televised images of starving Somalis moved Americans to demand the United States intervene in that country's civil war in December 1992, and images of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Somalia's capital just as rapidly moved them to demand a retreat 10 months later.

That is not what happened.

There was a CNN effect in Somalia, but it did not involve the American public; it involved government officials.

In a recent speech, former president George Bush described how the decision to commit U.S. troops to Somalia came after he and his wife, watching TV, saw "those starving kids . . . in quest of a little pitiful cup of rice." He said he phoned his national security team and said, "Please come over to the White House. I--we--can't watch this anymore. You've got to do something."

Different leaders but a similar dynamic precipitated America's humiliating withdrawal. As news of the disastrous Ranger raid--which left 18 American troops dead--came over the airwaves, members of Congress rushed to the floor to demand that the mission be aborted. The White House, moved by the same images, began to shut down the operation.

When asked by an interviewer about the gruesome TV footage, Clinton took pains to draw a parallel with Bush's reasoning. "I just think it's irresistible to show vivid images. . . . The same television power is what got the country and the world community into it in the first place."

One of us--Feaver--was on the National Security Council staff during this period. Though not privy to Oval Office counsels, the staff realized within 24 hours of the first ugly TV reports that the administration had lost its stomach for the Somalia mission.

Outside the Beltway, however, a majority of Americans were less queasy. Studies by foreign policy experts Eric Larson, James Burk, Steven Kull and I.M. Destler, re-analyzing polls taken during the crisis, demonstrate that even after the television reports, there was a reservoir of public support for the operation. If the sight of dead American soldiers somewhat undermined it, it was because the Clinton administration made no effort to frame the casualties as anything other than a disaster in a mission that had drifted dreadfully off course.

Had the administration chosen instead to galvanize public opposition to Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, our research suggests that Americans would have tolerated an expanded effort to catch and punish him.

We and two dozen fellow scholars have just completed an extensive analysis of the views of some 4,900 Americans, drawn from three groups: senior or rising military officers, influential civilians and the general public. It was part of a major investigation of American civil-military relations conducted by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS), a faculty consortium based at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. The study was prompted by concerns, expressed in 1997 by Secretary of Defense William Cohen and echoed elsewhere, about the possibility of a growing gap between the U.S. armed forces and American society as a whole--one that could harm military effectiveness and civil-military cooperation.

Our study confirmed that the myth of casualty aversion is entrenched at the upper levels of society. Overwhelmingly, both civilian and military leaders agreed with the statement, "The American public will rarely tolerate large numbers of U.S. casualties in military operations."

But a very different picture emerges from the citizens themselves. We asked respondents to consider how many American deaths would be acceptable to complete three plausible missions successfully: defending Taiwan against China; preventing Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction; and defending democracy in Congo. We compared the answers from the general public with those from two groups of influential civilians and members of the military.

Regarding America's long-standing commitment to defend Taiwan against China, we found broad consensus: All three groups agree that this mission would be worth the sacrifice of a substantial number of American lives.

No such consensus exists, however, with regard to typical post-Cold War missions in Iraq and Congo.

First, the general public indicates that it is willing to accept not just hundreds but thousands of casualties to accomplish these missions.

On average, our sample of the public allowed even higher numbers of casualties to curb Iraqi weapons than to defend Taiwan. This may reflect lingering traces of successful Bush-Clinton efforts to demonize Saddam Hussein combined with Clinton's attempts to pursue a conciliatory policy toward China.

The public's estimates for the mission to restore democracy in Congo were much lower, but were nonetheless substantial. In fact, they were many times higher than the actual casualties suffered by the U.S. military in all post-Cold War military actions combined.

The numbers cited on this page are averages, of course, and it is important that they be interpreted in general terms. For instance, we would not predict that most Americans would stop supporting democracy in Congo the day the death toll reached 6,182. And certainly there is a difference between asking people to guess how they would feel about casualties and the reality of seeing actual body bags. But the sheer numbers, and the dramatic differences between our sample groups, are surely significant.

Collectively, these results suggest that a majority of the American people will accept combat deaths--so long as the mission has the potential to be successful. The public can distinguish between suffering defeat and suffering casualties.

By far the lowest acceptable casualty figures in our study came from the military. Regarding the "non-traditional" military missions, elite military officers responded with estimates that were one-fourth to one-half those of elite civilians. Of course, this aversion to casualties is, in part, a function of what might be called rational calculations. That is, one reason military officers give lower casualty estimates for non-traditional missions is that they do not believe those missions are vital to the national interest. It stands to reason, therefore, that they would not consider them worth extensive loss of American lives.

Likewise, respondents who have a friend or relative in the military are slightly more averse to casualties, although the effect appears to be marginal. (Data on this point are not broken down here, but like many other factors we studied, they are reported and analyzed in more complex ways in our complete report. More information can be found at our Web site: www.poli.duke.edu/civmil.)

Even after accounting for these "rational effects," however, the gap between the military and the other samples remains significant. Moreover, it exists despite the relatively low number of women and the lower average age in the military. (As a group, women and older people are substantially more averse to casualties.)

Significantly, the evidence indicates that casualty aversion is not simply a function of self-preservation. If that were the case, we would expect sensitivity to be highest among officers whose roles are combat-related. However, our data show virtually no difference in casualty aversion among the combat, combat support and other sub-samples of elite military officers. Even more telling, younger officers, who are more likely to see combat duty, are more tolerant of casualties.

Instead, we think several factors are at work. For one, officers certainly feel a special responsibility for their troops' welfare. Second, senior officers may lack confidence in the reliability of civilian leaders; thus they fear that the government will abandon the military if casualties mount. Finally, casualty aversion may be an aspect of a growing zero-defect mentality among senior officers, in which casualties are not only deaths--they are an immediate indication that an operation is a failure. If a zero-defect mentality is on the rise, then civilian leaders must share culpability for this problem.

There are at least three reasons to be concerned about our leaders' attitudes regarding casualty aversion. First, their planning could be hamstrung by the erroneous belief that the public will demand that they cut and run at the first American combat deaths.

Of course, it is important to prevent or limit American casualties as much as possible. But it would be a grave mistake to believe that we can wield influence around the world and use our military to defend national interests without risking casualties. It is also a mistake to believe that the American public is unwilling to take risks when its leaders say that risks are appropriate.

Casualty aversion creates a second and more subtle threat to national security: It is corrosive to the professional military ethic. As retired Army colonel and West Point professor Donald M. Snider has argued, our military is built on the principles of self-sacrifice and mission accomplishment. Troops are supposed to be willing to die so that civilians do not have to.

In the Bosnian peacekeeping operation, casualty aversion reached an unprecedented level. "Force protection," meaning the prevention of U.S. casualties, became an explicit mission goal, on par with, if not superseding, the primary mission of restoring peace to Bosnia. As a result, war criminals were not aggressively pursued and arrested, community-building activities were curtailed, and every stray movement of a U.S. peacekeeper was a mission-threatening event.

Finally, if American casualties are politically impossible, then citizens of other countries will be at greater risk. While NATO was arguably victorious in Kosovo without losing a pilot in combat, that was achieved by forgoing a ground invasion, using high-altitude bombing and otherwise shifting the costs of the conflict onto the people of Kosovo and Serbia. By our own actions, we turned the famous question on its head: How many Yugoslavs are worth the life of a single American?

Our study cannot say whether America ought to be intervening in conflicts around the world, or whether we ought to be willing to suffer casualties in order to do so. But we can recommend that policymakers start listening more carefully to the expressed--not mythical--views of the American people. A myth is hardly sound footing for American foreign policy in the 21st century.

Peter Feaver is an associate professor of political science at Duke University, and co-principal investigator of the TISS Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society. Christopher Gelpi is an assistant professor of political science at Duke.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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