With Iraq war being pushed forward, an important unknown remains on the home front: The willingness of the American people to accept large numbers of dead or wounded soldiers.
Experts in Washington differ on whether high casualties would strengthen public resolve or turn opinion against the war.
Muddying the picture: The few casualties Americans have suffered in the nation’s recent military excursions. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in Kosovo and in Afghanistan, U.S. armed forces emerged remarkably unscathed.
As of mid-January, about 60 American fighters have been killed in what the military terms “the global war on terror” – including a CIA operative caught in an Afghan prison uprising, a Marine downed in a drive-by shooting in Kuwait and a Green Beret hit in a Philippine restaurant bombing.
Only 18 of the deaths were classified as killed in action in Afghanistan. The remainder died in aircraft crashes, accidents or incidents ranging from a drowning in Cuba to a lost helicopter crew in the Philippines.
Comparisons to past wars can create a problem because any casualties then become magnified, according to Ivan Eland, a defense policy expert at the Cato Institute in Washington.
Americans have reacted strongly when larger-than-expected casualties have been sustained by U.S. forces. In Vietnam in the 1960s, in Beirut, Lebanon, in the 1980s and in Somalia in the 1990s, public support for military operations began to fade when casualties mounted.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month showed that although more than 60 percent of respondents supported using force against Iraq, support dipped to 30 percent should the operation involve serious casualties.
A speech on Jan. 17 by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened to assure such an outcome: “Baghdad, its people and leadership, is determined to force the Mongols of our age to commit suicide at its gates,” Hussein said.
Such bellicosity could prove as empty as Hussein’s threat to ensure “the mother of all battles” in 1991.
But an invasion of Iraq would be vastly different than the Gulf War, which resulted in fewer than 150 combat-related deaths, experts warned.
The Persian Gulf War largely was fought in the open desert. If the U.S. were to attack Iraq now, it is likely, as Hussein has threatened, that the elite Iraqi Republican Guard and Hussein loyalists would try to hold Baghdad, forcing street warfare on turf familiar to them.
The fear is that such fights could be akin to the Battle of Mogadishu, when 18 soldiers died and support for the Somalia mission evaporated.
Then there is the increased threat of a cornered Hussein, who could turn to a cache of chemical and biological weapons.
“Research suggests the American public will support interventions even if they produce casualties, if there is a convincing justification for U.S. involvement,” said David Auerswald, a professor at the National War College in Washington.
“Public support seems to drop off if elected officials have not made a convincing case, or if there’s a significant debate between elected officials on whether this is worthwhile.”
World Wars I and II, and even the early days of the Korean War, were examples of casualty-heavy engagements that drew public support, Auerswald said.
On the other hand, the public doubt about Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia came after heavy casualties were coupled with increasing resistance to the war, he said.
“If you are expecting a significant number of casualties and you want to maintain public support, you have to make sure you have a good rationale,” Auerswald said.
That could be a challenge for the Bush administration. To prepare the American people for casualties might mean softening support, as polls show. To ignore that casualties may occur could cause outsized expectations for a quick, easy war.
Some in Washington are concerned that the case for war is weak. In a private meeting earlier this month between Senate Republicans and White House chief of staff Andrew Card, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri urged the administration to provide some links between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
But others say such concerns are overblown.
“I think the American people will stand behind President Bush even if the going gets tough,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “There are very few Americans who believe Saddam Hussein is not a threat and should stay in power. You won’t see a fundamental doubt about the rightness of our cause. I can’t think of a way we won’t be able to fulfill our military goals,” O’Hanlon said.
In 1990, during the buildup to the Persian Gulf War, similar concerns about the scope of potential American wounded abounded. The war ended within weeks, with few American casualties.
“No matter how strong you are, war is chaos,” Eland said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”