Published in the Chicago Sun Times, October 26, 2001
U.S. Casualty Intolerance: A Dangerous Myth
The view that the U.S. is casualty intolerant is a dangerous myth. The U.S. is willing to commit soldiers to fight, kill, and be killed when U.S. interests are high. The persistence of this myth risks lives and makes conduct of policy harder because the perception of casualty intolerance makes deterrence and coercion more difficult. However, most persistent myths have some roots in reality. Here, the myth springs from the U.S. withdrawals from Lebanon and Somalia, and from our emphasis on force protection in Balkan peacekeeping.
In Lebanon in 1984, U.S. forces withdrew from their peacekeeping mission after an Islamic Jihad attack on Marine barracks killed 241 soldiers. In Somalia in 1993, the humanitarian relief operation turned into a war, and we pulled out after losing 18 soldiers in a massive firefight. In Bosnia and now in Kosovo, the U.S. prefers the safety of our soldiers (force protection) more than risking them to accomplish such missions as arresting war criminals or improving the effectiveness of the peacekeeping mission by going out into towns, getting to know the people, and essentially performing 'community policing.'
Is this casualty intolerance? Yes it is. But consider that in Lebanon the mission was unclear, probably fated to fail, and the link of the mission to core U.S. interests was murky. In Somalia, there were no U.S. interests worth fighting a war over. By the time the Somali conflict escalated, the effectiveness of the humanitarian mission had already greatly declined. And in the Balkans where most policy makers concede some (but not enough) U.S. interest, even safety-first peacekeeping is (so far) basically accomplishing the mission of preventing conflict and limiting its escalation.
Thus, in areas where U.S. interests are low, where the mission is unclear or failing, or where the mission is succeeding despite casualty intolerance, the U.S. is indeed casualty intolerant. For good reason.
To many, the Gulf War reinforces the image of U.S. casualty intolerance. Reality tells a different story. One hundred and forty-eight U.S. soldiers were killed (and twenty-thousand or more Iraqi soldiers were killed). Does this indicate an unwillingness to tolerate casualties? No. It indicates superior capabilities and military skill, and good luck. When President George Bush initiated Desert Storm, casualty estimates for U.S. forces ranged from 2,000-15,000 and many suspected Saddam Hussein might use chemical or biological weapons.
Bottom line: when the stakes are high, the U.S. is willing to risk lives.
Finally, the myth of casualty intolerance is dangerous. One reason we failed to coerce Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and had to force him out was that he looked to Lebanon and thought he would win the war with the U.S. if he could cause enough casualties.
He miscalculated and we liberated something of real importance to us and the rest of the world: about twenty percent of Persian Gulf oil reserves. Had we not fought and had Saddam Hussein controlled Kuwait's oil, this man who has started two wars that have killed at least 1,300,000 people would have used the money to ramp up his un-degraded weapons of mass destruction and missile programs. This would have posed a very dangerous threat to the world. We had huge stakes in the Gulf War.
The September 11 attacks have united America. It is now clear that we have an overwhelming national interest in preventing and postponing terrorist attacks, especially those using weapons of mass destruction. If we are to fight this war for many years, we will need the support of others. We must build coalitions, institutions, and laws that will serve our long term interests. To maintain international support, we will have to use force purposefully and discriminately. However, anyone who doubts U.S. resolve and willingness to suffer and cause casualties when the stakes are high is making a serious mistake.