Of course, the major reason casualties are lower is that a third world war has been avoided. The prospect of mutual destruction that would result from nuclear exchanges war has encouraged caution whenever there was a risk of a conflict among the great powers. The absence of such a conflict since 1945 became known as the Long Peace. Instead, the more recent wars fought by the United States and its allies have not been industrial-scale conflicts between similarly armed states, but rather less-equal struggles against lesser powers, unable to cope with the weight of American firepower and the speed and accuracy with which it can be delivered.
The precision of modern weapons leads to expectations that enemy losses can also be kept down. There is less excuse for collateral damage, when civilians die in strikes supposedly directed against combatants. We have become used to the idea that Western forces will experience much lower levels of losses, still painful and poignant for those affected. In the past, the numbers of casualties were so huge that they numbed the senses. Now it is possible to consider the circumstances and human meaning of every death and injury.
When wars were fought over the most vital national interests, individual sacrifices were part of a great national effort; with more discretionary wars it becomes more of a challenge to justify a relatively small number of casualties. When the U.S. lost 241 in the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and 19 rangers in Mogadishu in Somalia a decade later, it abandoned both operations within months. This presumed casualty-intolerance explains the tactics adopted by American adversaries. They may not be able to defeat U.S. forces in actual battle, but they can catch them out in ambushes, improvised bombs, and indirect fire. After the successful and relatively smooth early occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, the U.S. and its allies found themselves coping with insurgencies that resulted in regular casualties. These have now reached 2,404 Americans for Afghanistan and 4,256 for Iraq. They have not led Washington to abandon efforts in those countries, but they have certainly led to caution when it comes to contemplating further interventions that might turn into long-term commitments.
For those who live in countries being consumed by war, there is no easy escape. When insurgencies and civil wars take hold, the impact becomes severe and enduring, as the fighting becomes routine and persistent. With the collapse of infrastructure, disease and malnutrition become big killers. Epidemics of sexual assaults follow armies as they move through populated areas. Those seeking to flee put themselves through terrible hardships, becoming either internally displaced or full refugees. War may just be the worst of many bad things afflicting a country that combine to make life progressively more miserable, including oppressive governments and natural disasters. Casualties accumulate inexorably over time. The numbers of Iraqis that have suffered violent deaths since the 2003 invasion is conservatively put at 268,000, with up to 200,000 of those civilians. Early attempts to record the deaths in the Syrian civil war faltered as it became impossible to keep an accurate count. Some estimates now put the numbers as high as 450,000. The combined toll for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001 was put last year at 173,000 dead and more than 183,000 seriously wounded. The War on Terror is, however, only the latest in a long line of conflicts to have afflicted Afghanistan since the 1970s.