- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2000

There comes a time in any defense debate when somebody has to risk unilateral rationality. That time has come in the strange, not to say bizarre, squabble over which is preferable: no dead Americans, some dead Americans, lots of dead Americans. Put differently, the argument is over whether the American people and their leaders will or can accept combat casualties, and the effect of such reticence on the military.

First, three obvious items, leading to a rational conclusion. Then a little history. Then a not-so-obvious assertion, leading to another (hopefully) rational conclusion.

First obvious item: Leaders come. Leaders go. What's unacceptable to one may be sad but tolerable to another. Second obvious item: The mood of the American people can change overnight, depending on the situation (Remember Pearl Harbor, the Maine, the next disaster, etc.). Third obvious item: Casualties, although abhorrent, become acceptable to the extent that they're viewed as accomplishing something important within an appropriate period of time.

Rational conclusion: Nothing definitive can be said about future civilian or leadership reticence in this matter.

Now for some history. Throughout the 20th century, casualty avoidance and minimization were essential parts of the American Way of War. In the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson and Gen. John Pershing adamantly refused, save in extremis, to parcel out American troops to the British and French, rightly suspecting that they would be used as cannon fodder. We demanded and got quiet sectors and time to prepare for combat.

(Historical curiosity. We ran two convoy routes to Europe, one for supplies, one for troops. German U-boats concentrated on the supply ships. Had the wolf packs gone for the troop convoys, killing tens of thousands of Americans before they ever got ashore, how might public opinion have reacted then?)

In World War II, casualty avoidance took many forms. Despite desperate Soviet importunings, we refused to open a second front in Europe until absolutely ready. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Pacific campaign was a masterpiece of keeping the deaths down. The Marines bypassed many strongly defended Japanese islands. We practically begged the Soviets to declare war on Japan so we wouldn't have to fight the main Japanese forces in China. And then there were those two ultimate acts of casualty avoidance: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which made invasion unnecessary.

And in America's wars since the lavish, sometimes preposterous use of firepower; the world's finest MedEvac and search-and-rescue capabilities; rejection of schemes that risk heavy casualties, such as the initial Desert Storm plan. So there's absolutely nothing new about casualty avoidance as an omnipresent consideration … except, perhaps, that prior generations understood that sometimes you simply have to bleed.

Have we lost that somber truth? Today, the critics claim, casualty-intolerance cripples the military in the field. First Beirut. Then Somalia. Most recently, the Kosovo experience: aircraft dropping bombs from 15,000 feet to avoid ground fire. (What was the Air Force limit in Vietnam? 5,000 feet?)

And then there's what has become known as "radical force protection." Some months ago, a young Army lieutenant back from Bosnia told a West Point class, "I tell my men every day there is nothing there worth one of them dying for, because minimizing really prohibiting casualties is the top-priority mission I have been given by my battalion commander."

So what's wrong with that? Is there really anything in Bosnia worth the bones of an Arkansas grenadier? Why should the military not be grateful for such civilian solicitude? After all, as the (military) pig told the (civilian) chicken whilst the two gazed upon a rural billboard featuring a ham and eggs breakfast: For you it's a contribution. For me it's total commitment.

There is a reason. And it has to do with more than body bags.

As a profession, the military exists for one purpose to accomplish the mission. Sometimes the mission may be pristine: decisive victory over a clear and present danger. Sometimes, the mission may be murky and open-ended: patrol the roads of Kosovo or the skies of Iraq. Those who argue that the United States should only commit troops for the former ignore the realities and complexities of the 21st century. Those who argue that the military can be used anywhere, any time, for any reason ignore human nature.

In recent years, there has developed in the military an attitude not seen since Vietnam. It might be called, "contempt of mission." It's not restricted to any service. It has many aspects, from dislike of the current commander-in-chief to doubts over certain deployments and employments, to individual and organizational frustration and fatigue. Under such circumstances, extreme casualty avoidance is a mixed blessing. It makes the odium more tolerable for those involved. But it also adds an exceptionally pernicious element to the mix that constitutes contempt of mission. Long-term, no professional military can abide it.

In sum, casualty avoidance and minimization are solemn and traditional duties of both military and civilian leadership. Anybody who thinks casualties are cool has no business in this business. Sometimes, as in the current Balkan situation, they can be a legitimate primary concern. But they can also damage the essence of the military's professional purpose, and the ethics attendant thereon.

Conclusion: If as a nation we've lost the sense that we sometimes have to bleed, give thanks we've had the luxury of such self-delusion for so long. If within the military, casualty-intolerance and contempt of mission intensify … we won't have that luxury much longer.

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