War Without Casualties


The Persian Gulf war revealed the post-Vietnam persistence of a profound and potentially enervating influence on U.S. crisis behavior, force planning and military operations: the political imperative of minimizing casualties among U.S. military forces, enemy civilians and even enemy military forces.

Hyper-sensitivity to casualties certainly spares lives, but as the war showed, it can also compromise military operations against enemies who care little about battlefield loss of life but are determined to exploit American sensitivity to it. Implications range from war avoidance or premature cessation of hostilities to new war-fighting doctrines and to weapons designed to disable rather than destroy.

"In planning Operation Desert Storm," declares a House Armed Services Committee report on the war, "minimizing allied casualties was the highest priority." This priority led to the choices to delay the war's beginning until U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia were heavily reinforced; to preface major offensive ground action by an extensive air campaign; to reject an amphibious assault on Kuwait's coast in favor of alternative operations inland; to suspend certain bombing operations in the Baghdad area (after the killing of civilians in the Ameriyya air-raid shelter), and to end hostilities after only 100 hours of ground combat.

Sensitivity to casualties also accounted for the air campaign's stringent rules of engagement; its restriction of attacks on Baghdad targets to cruise missiles and Stealth fighter-delivered ordnance, and the leaflet warnings to Iraqi forces in Kuwait to stay away from their armored fighting vehicles before the vehicles were attacked.

U.S. military and enemy civilian casualties were so low in proportion to the scale of the war as to have no precedent in history. Even the number of Iraqi military dead now appears much smaller than originally estimated -- perhaps no more than 10,000-12,000 -- because units were undermanned, desertion was high and Iraqi troops quickly understood that safety lay in keeping away from their vehicles and artillery pieces.

Saddam Hussein clearly recognized America's obsession with casualties, but was utterly ignorant of modern warfare and grossly underestimated U.S. resolve and fighting power. Accordingly, his highly touted army failed to inflict politically significant casualties on the Americans. In this and many other respects, Mr. Hussein was a most unusual adversary -- of a kind we are hardly likely to encounter again.

Past non-Western adversaries have routinely managed to inflict substantial casualties in combat with U.S. forces, in some cases enough to erode public and congressional support for continued hostilities. This was indisputably the case in Indochina -- and also in Lebanon, where the death of 241 Marines (93 more than the total number of U.S. military personnel killed during Desert Storm) at the hands of a lone terrorist prompted a humiliating albeit politically mandatory withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country.

Moreover, in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent even in the Persian Gulf, the level of collateral damage U.S. forces inflicted on the enemy's civilian population and economic infrastructure became a source of domestic political division.

Future adversaries cannot have failed to notice the extraordinary U.S. emphasis given to casualty avoidance during the gulf crisis, as well as Mr. Hussein's failure to exploit opportunities to inflict casualties on U.S. forces. Sensitivity to casualties has become perhaps America's greatest single comparative weakness on the battlefield. Paradoxically, this sensitivity may be heightened by Desert Storm's very success, establishing a yardstick against which future U.S. combat operations invariably will be compared.

Sensitivity, at least in the gulf war, extended even to enemy military losses. Graphic television coverage of the results of U.S. air attacks on Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait -- the so-called "Highway of Death" -- conveyed images of wanton slaughter (incorrect as it turned out) that reportedly hastened the Bush administration's decision for a unilateral cease-fire amid concern over the negative impact of the images on world and especially on allied Arab opinion.

The Pentagon's continued defensiveness on estimates of Iraqi military dead suggests fear of a morally embarrassing high number, given the refusal of most Iraqi forces to offer more than token resistance -- or of a surprisingly low number, which could underscore that refusal and thereby cheapen the victory. (There are sound force-planning reasons for trying to calculate Iraqi troop losses, and in every other war the Pentagon has routinely provided estimates of enemy dead.)

Future adversaries also will recognize that some combat environments are far more likely to produce significant American casualties than others, and they undoubtedly will weigh specific measures aimed at maximizing them. American body counts are likely to be a premier strategic objective on the part of Third World enemies contemplating conflict with the United States.

Ground forces are inherently more casualty-prone than air and naval forces, and the United States traditionally has sought to substitute the latter for the former where possible. In the Persian Gulf it succeeded in doing so until the last days of the war, refusing to be baited into a premature ground offensive at Khafji.

Where the United States can get away with using air and naval power alone, prospects for inflicting large American casualties diminish substantially. But even low casualties among air and naval forces can have negative political effects; the loss of 37 U.S. sailors on the Stark in the Persian Gulf in 1988 weakened already tepid support for the Reagan administration's program to provide U.S. naval escorts for Kuwaiti shipping.

A relatively new development, the advent of continual, live international television coverage of casualty-producing events is likely to magnify American sensitivity. For American presidents, who are products of an electoral system in which television images are all-important, but who cannot control television coverage, instantaneous images of the human consequences of a mistaken attack can have immediate and highly negative effects on both world and domestic political opinion. An excellent example was Mr. Hussein's clever use of CNN to inflate the international outcry over the bombing of the Ameriyya shelter in downtown Baghdad.

Future enemies may succeed where Saddam Hussein failed. They will learn from his failure, and will attempt to deny the United States opportunities to conduct military operations on the cheap in terms of casualties incurred. Every resource -- weapons, forces, topography, civilian presence and attitudes, operational doctrines, tactical techniques, terrorism and other unconventional action, and the American public mood -- will be analyzed for the purpose of squeezing as much American blood as possible out of any violent encounter.

Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun.

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