In War, The Mission Matters

Tough but unavoidable questions arise whenever the United States contemplates going to war. What kind of losses is the country prepared to tolerate? What happens when the body bags start coming home?

Ask Americans whether they are willing to send U.S. ground troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power, without specifying the number of potential U.S. casualties. In the October Gallup Poll, 53 percent said yes. Suppose people knew that war with Iraq would cost 100 U.S. casualties. Would they still support it? Fifty-one percent still say yes—just 2 points lower.

What if the United States were to suffer 1,000 casualties? Public support for the war drops 5 more points, to 46 percent. And if there were 5,000 U.S. casualties? Down another 13 points. Only one-third of Americans say they would support a war costing 5,000 U.S. lives. As the theoretical number of U.S. casualties mounts, public support for the war drops at an accelerating rate. That seems to make sense. Except for one thing: That's not what has happened in previous wars.

In his 1973 book, War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, political scientist John Mueller found that casualties in the early stages of war have a big impact on public opinion. But as casualties increase, the impact diminishes. Americans, Mueller wrote, "are sensitive to relatively small losses in the early stages, but only to large losses in later stages."

Why does current polling show just the opposite? Because right now, the U.S. is at the earliest stages of a potential war with Iraq. So the public is supersensitive about possible body counts.

Moreover, body bags are not the only issue. Public opinion expert Steven Kull of the University of Maryland argues, "The critical question in the American public's mind is not whether there are body bags, but whether the military operation makes sense to them and whether they think it's succeeding."

Does war with Iraq "make sense" to Americans? Do they understand what the United States would be fighting for? President Bush tried to answer that question on October 7 in Cincinnati when he said, "Confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror." And Bush insists that, unlike its wars in Korea and Vietnam, the United States will be fighting to win in Iraq. "We will act with the full power of the United States military," he told the country. "We will act with allies at our side. And we will prevail."

Americans hate political wars—wars that are fought for any purpose other than complete military victory. Take the U.S. intervention in Somalia. It was supposed to be a humanitarian mission, but the United States inevitably got involved in Somali politics. That's because the famine in that country wasn't caused by nature. It was caused by politics. It took just 18 fatalities and images of one desecrated American body to get the U.S. out of that conflict. The problem in Somalia wasn't public squeamishness about casualties. It was public outrage about the mission.

In his Cincinnati speech, Bush offered a different model for his policy toward Iraq. The president said, "Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past." The reference was deliberately evocative of the Cuban missile crisis. Bush even quoted John F. Kennedy: "As President Kennedy said in October of 1962, 'Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small.'"

However, President Kennedy's brother draws a different lesson from the Cuban missile crisis. According to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., "When missiles were discovered in Cuba—missiles more threatening to us than anything Saddam Hussein has today—some in the highest councils of government urged an immediate, unilateral strike. Instead, the United States took its case to the United Nations, won the endorsement of the Organization of American States, and brought along even our most skeptical allies."

President Bush claims that the United States prevailed in the Cuban missile crisis because it was willing to take pre-emptive action. In his October 7 speech, he even cited President Kennedy making exactly that point: "'We no longer live in a world,' [Kennedy] said, 'where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril.'"

Sen. Kennedy argues that the United States succeeded in the Cuban missile crisis because it did not take pre-emptive action. "The United States prevailed without war in the greatest confrontation of the Cold War," Sen. Kennedy says. "Now, on Iraq, let us build international support, try the United Nations, pursue disarmament, before we turn to armed conflict."

When the Kennedy administration went "eyeball-to-eyeball" with the Soviet Union in 1962, no one knew how far the United States was willing to go. In the end, the Soviets blinked. Now Bush is going eyeball-to-eyeball with Saddam Hussein. What if Saddam blinks? Will the Bush administration take yes for an answer? It can't, if its ultimate goal in Iraq is "regime change."

The Cuban missile crisis symbolized one thing: Victory without body bags. Is that conceivable in Iraq? Sure—but only if, under imminent threat of invasion, the Iraqi people get the message and carry out "regime change" themselves.