Iraq: U.S. Casualties Accelerate
- In Iraq, Pace of U.S. Casualties Has Accelerated
By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page A01
The number of U.S. service members killed and wounded in Iraq has
more than doubled in the past four months compared with the four
months preceding them, according to Pentagon statistics.
From Sept. 1 through Friday, 145 service members were killed in
action in Iraq, compared with 65 from May 1 to Aug. 30. The two four-
month intervals cover counterinsurgency operations, far costlier than
major combat operations, which President Bush declared over on May 1.
Increases in those wounded in action have been equally dramatic this
fall. Since Sept. 1, 1,209 soldiers have received battlefield wounds,
more than twice the 574 wounded in action from May 1 through Aug. 30.
Nor have casualties tapered off since the capture of former Iraqi
president Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13. Through Friday, 12 service
members were killed in action and 105 were wounded with Hussein in
After a summer in which U.S. military commanders believed they were
about to turn a corner and see a significant decline in casualties,
attacks on American forces increased dramatically in October and
early November, prompting a U.S. counteroffensive that culminated in
Hussein's capture near Tikrit.
"The rate of casualties over the last four months is an indication
that the insurgents are getting better organized," said retired Lt.
Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and
Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. "The insurgents have
been encouraged by the fact that they have had some success."
But casualties are far from "mission-threatening," Krepinevich said,
adding that the real key to success depends upon "the will of the
American people to continue to accept this level of casualties,
which -- by the way -- is far lower than anything we experienced in
the Vietnam War."
"It would take years at this casualty rate to arrive at the number
killed in an hour at the World Trade Center," he added.
Nevertheless, Americans are clearly growing weary of casualties.
Washington Post-ABC News polling data from late March, during major
combat operations, showed that 58 percent of Americans interviewed
said they thought the number of casualties in Iraq was acceptable,
with 34 percent saying the number was unacceptable.
The latest results, based on interviews conducted Dec. 18-21 with
1,001 randomly selected adults nationwide, indicate that those
percentages have flipped, with only 33 percent saying the number of
casualties is acceptable and 64 percent saying it is unacceptable.
Yet support for the war remained solid. Asked whether the war in Iraq
was worth fighting, considering the costs and the benefits to the
United States, 59 percent said it was.
"Despite the myth that the American public is casualty-averse, the
nation has traditionally accepted casualties if the public thinks
that the cause is just and there is a definable end state," said
retired Marine Col. Gary W. Anderson, a consultant to the Pentagon on
Iraqi security issues.
But support for the war could erode dramatically, defense analysts
and public opinion experts said, if casualties continue at a
relatively high rate next year and start to have the effect of
undermining public confidence in the mission.
A Coming 'Tipping Point'?
Since the war began on March 19, a total of 470 service members have
died in Iraq: 325 were killed in action, and 145 died in non-hostile
circumstances involving accidents and suicides. The number killed in
action in the war's counterinsurgency phase, 210, is nearly twice the
115 battlefield fatalities during major combat operations.
The number of soldiers wounded in action totaled 2,333, with an
additional 370 injured in non-hostile circumstances. The total
wounded in action in counterinsurgency operations, 1,783, is now more
than three times the 550 wounded in action during major combat
Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University
and an expert on war and public opinion, said continued casualties
could reach a "tipping point" at which the Bush administration loses
the most important element in public support for the war: a belief
that success is likely.
Although Hussein's capture earlier this month helped bolster that
belief, Feaver said, the steady "drip-drip-drip of casualties" and
criticism of the war by Democratic candidates in next year's
presidential election is likely to bring support for the war back
A single event that causes a large number of U.S. casualties, such as
the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, could push the
public toward the tipping point, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Gary D.
Solis, the Marine Corps' chief of oral history.
"We've never been as casualty-averse as either the politicians said
or the military thought," Solis said, speaking for himself, not the
Marine Corps. "But that can change in an instant."
Feaver said he is not surprised by the lack of public outcry thus far
about casualties in Iraq. "The public has responded to the casualties
in a way that is contrary to the conventional Beltway wisdom but
perfectly in keeping with the academic scholarship on the issue," he
said. "The Beltway wisdom is that public support collapses in the
face of casualties, and by casualties I mean fatalities. But the
academic research shows that public support is far more robust," as
long as people feel the stakes are important and believe success is
'Enemies of Freedom'
Letters and e-mails coming into the 82nd Airborne Division's
headquarters in Iraq suggest that "many Americans understand, in the
wake of 9/11, that there is a very real enemy that will attempt to
kill Americans at whatever cost wherever found," said Maj. Gen.
Charles H. Swannack Jr., the division's commander. "These Americans
also understand that these determined, unscrupulous enemies of
freedom must be stopped in spite of the tragic cost."
Eliot Cohen, a professor of national security studies at Johns
Hopkins University, said that 3,173 service members "is, indeed, a
lot of casualties." But the effect, he said, is being mitigated by a
number of factors, including improved medical care and body armor,
that are keeping far more troops alive, and an almost total ban on
news coverage of the wounded as they return to the United States at
Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. While stories have been
written and broadcast about individual casualties recuperating from
wounds received in Iraq, there has been almost no coverage in the
media of large aircraft arriving almost nightly at Andrews carrying
war wounded from the battlefield. Similarly, media coverage of bodies
arriving at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware has been
Cohen also said that the "political impact of casualties" is very
different now, with an all-volunteer military, than it was during the
Vietnam War, when many of the 58,000 soldiers killed were draftees.
"The families are more stoical, as are the troops themselves," Cohen
But at the same time, a considerable number of casualties in Iraq
have been from the Army Reserve and the National Guard, meaning that
while they, too, volunteered to serve, they went to war directly from
their homes in communities across America.
"The deaths of Guardsmen and reservists is likely to start hitting
home in the near future," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State
Department analyst with ties to U.S. military's Special Forces. "The
deaths of comrades hit them harder and have a more damaging effect on
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
More on US casualties
According to Global Security, a Washington based military think
tank, `confirmed' US deaths since May 1 now stand at 287.
Interestingly on the issue of casualties / battlefield ration, the
report argues that as of 13 November 2003 a total of 7,714 ill and
injured American troops had been evacuated from Iraq.
(follow above link for details)
Table of ratio, battlefield deaths, subsequent fatally wounded etc.
(for other major conflicts):
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