Nearly 4/10 Doubt if War is Worth Casualties

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Mon Mar 31 07:57:39 MST 2003


A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll
shows half of all Americans expect the war
to last three months or more, and nearly
four in 10 express doubts that it is worth
the cost in U.S. military casualties.

Nearly Four in 10 Americans Polled
Doubt If War Is Worth Casualties

WASHINGTON -- Ordinary Americans are struggling with the
same quandary facing President Bush and his military
commanders: In the war to oust Saddam Hussein and transform
Iraq, how many casualties are too many?

That question has taken on new urgency as early developments
in the 11-day-old war have many in the public bracing for a
longer conflict than they first anticipated. And it is all
the more difficult to answer because the goal of limiting
U.S. military casualties conflicts with the desire to limit
deaths of Iraqi civilians.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll makes that tension
clear. Half of all Americans now expect the war to last
three months or more, and nearly four in 10 express doubts
that it is worth the cost in U.S. military casualties. As
that cost comes into view, 42% say the military hasn't used
enough force against adversaries.

At the same time, Americans continue to embrace the goal of
pacing military action to minimize loss of life among the
Iraqi civilians that U.S. commanders say are being used by
Iraqi soldiers as "human shields." Some 56% say the U.S.
military should do everything possible to minimize civilian
casualties, even if it delays military objectives; 38% say
the military should use whatever force is needed to achieve
objectives as quickly as possible.

"I'm not happy with seeing U.S. casualties," says Michael
Bennett, a 32-year-old manufacturing worker in Portland,
Ore. But "if you try to use a massive amount of force to end
it quickly, you'll actually make it last longer" because
more Iraqi casualties would further inflame the Arab world
and engender increased terrorism.

The issue of war casualties isn't the only one squeezing
U.S. policy makers; so is the matter of financial costs.
While 57% of respondents say the financial cost of the war
is worth it, 38% have doubts. And after backing Mr. Bush's
pending tax-cut plan by a 2-to-1 majority in January, 52%
says Congress shouldn't pass the plan, in light of the
federal budget deficit and war costs. The survey of 501
adults has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points in
either direction.

By the standards of military history, the number of U.S.
casualties in Iraq so far remains miniscule. Some 405,000
U.S. forces died in World War II, and 58,000 lost their
lives in Vietnam. By Sunday night, the Pentagon said, 39
American and 24 British troops had died in Operation Iraqi
Freedom. The number of wounded and injured is harder to come
by; as of midweek, the Pentagon had put the number at 19.

The number of dead looks larger in the context of recent
U.S. military engagements. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War,
fewer than 400 Americans were killed in fighting that lasted
less than two months. The Journal/NBC poll shows Americans
expect Operation Iraqi Freedom to last longer than Operation
Desert Storm, with some 50% predicting it will extend for
three months or longer.

John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University
in Columbus, predicts Americans will lose patience with the
conflict if U.S. casualties reach into the hundreds. That is
because the country views the confrontation with Mr. Hussein
as a war the U.S. chose to initiate, he says.

But others say the public will tolerate a longer, costlier
war as long as they believe the military is on track to
achieve its objectives of ousting the Iraqi leader and
eliminating Iraq's ability to use weapons of mass
destruction. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a
former Vietnam War prisoner, notes that Americans turned
against that war not because of the level of U.S. military
casualties themselves but rather because "they didn't see a
light at the end of the tunnel" leading to victory.

That means the frequent and unwavering assertions from Mr.
Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that coalition
forces are headed for certain victory may be increasing the
public's tolerance of U.S. casualties. In the Journal/NBC
poll, seven in 10 Americans say the war will end in a U.S.
victory, even though nearly half of those surveyed say the
Bush administration underestimated the strength of the Iraqi
military and of the civilian population's solidarity with
Mr. Hussein.

U.S. officials haven't been as quick to provide details
about casualties. U.S. Central Command, which controls the
war from its base in Doha, Qatar, has refused to confirm
casualties at all, leaving that to the Pentagon.

Mr. Rumsfeld indignantly rejects any suggestion that the
U.S. is reluctant to report casualties for fear of political
fallout. But there are often lags in the system, as the
Pentagon gets word from the battle zone and then seeks to
notify casualties' next of kin.

Saturday, military officials said U.S. forces had found the
bodies of some coalition troops in shallow graves near
Nasiriyah and had sent a mortuary crew to examine them. As
of Sunday, there was no public identification of the bodies
or accounting of the number. The graves were found in an
area near where the Army's 507th Maintenance Company was
ambushed a week ago. At least two 507th soldiers were
killed, eight were missing and five were taken prisoner in
that attack.

The government has had little definitive to say about Iraqi
civilian casualties. U.S. officials have yet to confirm a
single civilian death from days of air strikes on Baghdad,
though anecdotal reports from the scene suggest there have
been scores of them, at a minimum. Questions about a missile
that killed some 14 people in a Baghdad market Wednesday
have become a daily ritual at Central Command headquarters,
with military officials saying they continue to investigate
the incident.

A group of academics called, which counts
references from a variety of news publications, said between
361 and 469 civilians had died as of Sunday afternoon. Iraqi
officials have trumpeted reports of civilian casualties in
pursuit of public-relations advantage in media outlets
throughout the Arab world and elsewhere. U.S. military
officials say they don't have enough access to solid
information to confirm civilian-casualty counts.

The Journal/NBC poll shows that Americans, while concerned
about casualties on both sides, believe the administration
is striking the right balance so far. Patricia Wade, 52
years old, of Healdton, Okla., says the war is worthwhile
even though it has placed her son Jeff in harm's way as an
Army soldier in Kuwait.

Otherwise, "I'd be undermining him," she explains. And
despite early setbacks, she is content to see U.S. forces to
"take their time" to minimize civilian casualties. "I was
hoping it'd be over by now," she adds, but now "I don't have
a clue."

--Kelly K. Spors contributed to this article.

Write to John Harwood at john.harwood at and
Christopher Cooper at christopher.cooper at

Updated March 31, 2003 12:43 a.m.

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