Iraq Death Watch: When Did We Become Casualty Averse?

By: Greg C. Reeson

It was fascinating to see the mainstream media’s obsession with the death toll in Iraq as the “grim milestone” of 3,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the war approached toward the end of the year. It was a macabre scene, with most cable and major news networks, along with their print media peers, anxiously watching the number of casualties rise in anticipation of that momentous occasion, when they could point their fingers at President Bush and talk about how his conduct of the war in Iraq was ruining America and killing her youth.

“Time to reflect as Iraq toll hits 3,000.” “New Year Brings 3000th US death in Iraq.” So read the headlines the last weekend of 2006, as makeshift memorials sprung up around the country and protest rallies made the evening news. Cindy Sheehan, I’m sure, is very proud. My question, though, is this: when did Americans become so averse to war casualties, and more importantly, why did it happen?

We, as a society, were not always so upset at the loss of American soldiers in combat. In World War II we absorbed some 400,000 deaths, with tens of thousands in the Battle of the Bulge (Hitler’s ill-fated Ardennes Offensive) alone and thousands in one day on the beaches of Normandy. In Korea, we suffered over 50,000 dead and in Vietnam the total was near 60,000. Both the Second World War and the Korean Conflict saw much higher casualty rates per day for a period of time roughly equivalent to the current war in Iraq.

Somewhere between the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2004, we as a nation decided that we were now opposed to the casualties inherent in an extended combat environment, particularly like the one we are faced with now.

According to a recent TNS poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News, 77% of Americans believe the number of U.S. military casualties in Iraq is unacceptable. Another poll, cited in a September 2005 International Herald Tribune article, found that 45% of respondents said there had been more casualties than they expected, and that was nearly a year and a half ago. So what happened to cause this increase in the sensitivity of Americans to combat losses?

Really, it’s quite simple I think. Americans got accustomed to quick, painless victories that incurred minimal loss of life among our service members. We invaded Grenada in 1983, with only 19 casualties. Then, in 1989 we went to Panama in pursuit of Manuel Noriega with only 24 combat deaths. But the one that really changed the American mindset, the one that moved us to casualty aversion as a society, was the Persian Gulf War, or Operation Desert Storm, in 1991.

For the first time since Vietnam, the American public watched in anticipation as the U.S. military deployed more than 500,000 troops to Southwest Asia to take on Saddam Hussein and evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait. We witnessed “Nintendo” warfare as smart bombs and precision guided missiles seamlessly slipped into windows and air shafts to take out designated targets with minimal civilian and U.S. casualties. After only 100 hours the ground offensive came to a halt, with Iraq in retreat and an incredibly low 148 U.S. battle deaths, after facing what was then the fourth largest army in the world.

What has happened to our society is that we have been conditioned by our superior technology and our superpower status, both of which give us advantages over conventional enemies that simply cannot be overcome, to believe that we can just go into a country, clean up a mess, and then come home with an absolute minimum number of losses.

This Pavlovian conditioning has misled us, though. All the technology and firepower in the world will never change the fact that war is an ugly business. In combat, the brutal truth is that people, military and civilian, die. Period. There’s just no way around it. We became accustomed to easy victories against traditional armies with uniforms and front lines. When those customs of war disappeared and we were faced with an enemy who utilized cowardly anonymous attacks from roadside bombs and barbaric tactics against civilians designed to create mass casualties, we were shocked back into reality.

Now, critics will say that Americans are not really casualty averse as long as they believe in the cause we are fighting for. And the problem with Iraq is that the public doesn’t believe in it. The fact that we failed to find weapons of mass destruction took away our mandate for invading a sovereign nation, making further loss of American lives pointless.

There was a time when I subscribed to that belief myself. But now I’m not so sure. Maybe I give the American public too much credit. Maybe they don’t really understand the consequences of failure in Iraq and are therefore unwilling to pay the price for our success there.

No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think Americans fully understand why we should stay, but they are unwilling to suffer the costs involved. They are unwilling to accept that the American way of war is not the image they have grown accustomed to over the past thirty years. They are unwilling to accept that our soldiers engage in brutal, savage combat that sometimes leads to horrific acts that few among the public can understand.

And that is why they want our troops to come home now.

It is actually good for the American conscience that this war has unfolded the way it has. It reminds me of a well-known quote by one of America’s most famous generals, Robert E. Lee, who said, “It is well that war is so terrible—lest we should grow too fond of it.” Perhaps we as Americans will once again learn to appreciate the true costs of war, and focus not on what the latest casualty number is, but on the lives and sacrifices of the brave men and women who volunteer to fight our nation’s battles, no matter how terrible those battles may be.

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