- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

In the upcoming probable war in Iraq, two worthy American war-fighting methods well may come into conflict: keeping American casualties as low as possible and minimizing enemy civilian casualties and damage. To a degree, neither of these objectives are strictly military concerns. They reflect evolving humanitarian values, both in the United States and throughout the populations of the civilized world. As recently as World War II and the Vietnam War, enemy civilian casualty levels were of little concern to either the public or the general staffs, even on our side. And only in the battles after Vietnam has concern for minimizing American military casualties been an explicit part of our strategies and tactics. Even now, these concerns expressed by the Pentagon and White House about minimizing civilian and military casualties are in part strategic as well as humanitarian.

The Pentagon's developing war-fighting strategies will reflect its concern that the impact of returning body bags and the CNN factor (instantaneous public viewing of the images of war) may cause public revulsion, and thus lead to lack of support for the war effort. Because public support for a war is correctly considered a strategic component of successful war-fighting in a democracy, it is critical that Pentagon war planners correctly assess what public attitudes about casualties will be once the enemy is engaged.

According to our sources, the Pentagon is currently considering the appropriate strategy for dealing with Saddam should he hold out in Baghdad with up to 80,000 of his better troops. Such an action would give rise to a siege of Baghdad by our forces. There are two basic siege strategies: 1) Starve and/or bombard the city until it surrenders, or 2) go in, seek out and actively engage the enemy troops. Media commentators have been calling the latter category house-to-house combat. It is likely to result in higher American military casualties, but lower enemy civilian casualties. The first method starve and bombard is likely to result in lower American military casualties but much higher enemy civilian casualties. It is also possible that Saddam may be able to send out carefully managed video images from inside the besieged city in an effort to outrage world and, perhaps, American opinion. Thus, the strategic quandary for the Pentagon becomes whether to try to minimize our military casualties or the enemy's civilian casualties.

While, as a rule, this page does not believe it is wise to extensively publicly debate imminent war-fighting strategies, in this matter American public opinion is itself a key part of the strategy. What does the American public want its military to do? Should it design a strategy that will surely result in great (and visible) loss of enemy civilian life in order to save more American soldiers from harm, or is the public willing to accept higher American deaths and wounds in order minimize enemy civilian deaths? To make this gruesome calculation even more difficult, high enemy civilian death tolls may make it harder to manage a post-war Iraq. It may also be more likely to inflame world, and particularly Arab, opinion outside of Iraq.

Harry Truman faced the same horrible dilemma (involving a vastly greater magnitude of death, of course) when he decided to atomic bomb Japan to save American soldiers' lives. It should go without saying that, regarding Iraq, the atomic option is inadmissible. But applying the Truman decision in a conventional weapons context, we believe he provides us with the proper guiding principle: Minimize enemy civilian death as much as possible, but not at the price of the lives of American soldiers. We owe it to our soldiers and their families to keep American losses to a minimum.


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