The Persian Gulf war revealed the post-Vietnam persistence of a profound and potentially enervating influence on U.S. crisis behavior, force planning and military operations: the political imperative of minimizing casualties among U.S. military forces, enemy civilians and even enemy military forces.
Hyper-sensitivity to casualties certainly spares lives, but as the war showed, it can also compromise military operations against enemies who care little about battlefield loss of life but are determined to exploit American sensitivity to it. Implications range from war avoidance or premature cessation of hostilities to new war-fighting doctrines and to weapons designed to disable rather than destroy.
''In planning Operation Desert Storm,'' declares a House Armed Services Committee report on the war, ''minimizing allied casualties was the highest priority.'' This priority led to the choices to delay the war's beginning until U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia were heavily reinforced; to preface major offensive ground action by an extensive air campaign; to reject an amphibious assault on Kuwait's coast in favor of alternative operations inland; to suspend certain bombing operations in the Baghdad area (after the killing of civilians in the Ameriyya air-raid shelter), and to end hostilities after only 100 hours of ground combat.
Sensitivity to casualties also accounted for the air campaign's stringent rules of engagement; its restriction of attacks on Baghdad targets to cruise missiles and Stealth fighter-delivered ordnance, and the leaflet warnings to Iraqi forces in Kuwait to stay away from their armored fighting vehicles before the vehicles were attacked.
U.S. military and enemy civilian casualties were so low in proportion to the scale of the war as to have no precedent in history. Even the number of Iraqi military dead now appears much smaller than originally estimated -- perhaps no more than 10,000-12,000 -- because units were undermanned, desertion was high and Iraqi troops quickly understood that safety lay in keeping away from their vehicles and artillery pieces.
Saddam Hussein clearly recognized America's obsession with casualties, but was utterly ignorant of modern warfare and grossly underestimated U.S. resolve and fighting power. Accordingly, his highly touted army failed to inflict politically significant casualties on the Americans. In this and many other respects, Mr. Hussein was a most unusual adversary -- of a kind we are hardly likely to encounter again.
Past non-Western adversaries have routinely managed to inflict substantial casualties in combat with U.S. forces, in some cases enough to erode public and congressional support for continued hostilities. This was indisputably the case in Indochina -- and also in Lebanon, where the death of 241 Marines (93 more than the total number of U.S. military personnel killed during Desert Storm) at the hands of a lone terrorist prompted a humiliating albeit politically mandatory withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country.
Moreover, in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent even in the Persian Gulf, the level of collateral damage U.S. forces inflicted on the enemy's civilian population and economic infrastructure became a source of domestic political division.
Future adversaries cannot have failed to notice the extraordinary U.S. emphasis given to casualty avoidance during the gulf crisis, as well as Mr. Hussein's failure to exploit opportunities to inflict casualties on U.S. forces. Sensitivity to casualties has become perhaps America's greatest single comparative weakness on the battlefield. Paradoxically, this sensitivity may be heightened by Desert Storm's very success, establishing a yardstick against which future U.S. combat operations invariably will be compared.
Sensitivity, at least in the gulf war, extended even to enemy military losses. Graphic television coverage of the results of U.S. air attacks on Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait -- the so-called ''Highway of Death'' -- conveyed images of wanton slaughter (incorrect as it turned out) that reportedly hastened the Bush administration's decision for a unilateral cease-fire amid concern over the negative impact of the images on world and especially on allied Arab opinion.
The Pentagon's continued defensiveness on estimates of Iraqi military dead suggests fear of a morally embarrassing high number, given the refusal of most Iraqi forces to offer more than token resistance -- or of a surprisingly low number, which could underscore that refusal and thereby cheapen the victory. (There are sound force-planning reasons for trying to calculate Iraqi troop losses, and in every other war the Pentagon has routinely provided estimates of enemy dead.)