Cost of war: a new accounting

SUN JOURNAL

Strategy: Many are critical as minimizing casualties, rather than completing the mission at whatever cost, becomes the first priority

March 22, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Just back from Bosnia, a U.S. Army lieutenant stood before a class of West Point cadets last year for a lesson on clear, cold reality.

"I tell my men every day there is nothing there worth one of them dying for," the lieutenant told the would-be junior officers. "Because minimizing -- really prohibiting -- casualties is the top-priority mission I have been given by my battalion commander."

The blunt talk contradicted what the cadets had been studying: Minimize casualties, yet complete the mission. Now they were being told that protecting their troops was the mission. The next generation of Army officers came face-to-face with the new, topsy-turvy world of the U.S. military.

This cautious approach to combat and peacekeeping operations -- "casualty aversion" -- is a growing trend that is not only jeopardizing the success of missions where U.S. troops are involved, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, but also corroding the military ethos of self-sacrifice and protection of noncombatants, say active-duty officers and military analysts.

"Sometimes soldiers are obligated to take risks to get the mission done," explains Maj. Tony Pfaff, a philosophy instructor at West Point, who described the cadet scene in a study he co-wrote in December, "Army Professionalism, the Military Ethic and Officership in the 21st Century." Without risk, he argues, soldiers become "hard-working technicians, not soldiers anymore."

He and others say that military leaders and politicians fear a public reaction against the spilling of American blood. But polls show Americans will support deadly military operations, as long as the reasons are clearly explained and the United States sees it through to completion.

Firsthand experience

Pfaff saw firsthand this no-casualty emphasis as an infantry officer in Macedonia in 1994. He recalls that missions could be canceled because of extreme weather, lest hypothermia or other difficult conditions injure the troops.

If protecting U.S. troops becomes the mission, Pfaff and others ask, how can America train soldiers to fight and win the nation's wars? It is one of the reasons, they say, that young officers are abandoning the profession of arms in droves. Ordering soldiers to avoid firefights is akin to telling firefighters to stay away from burning buildings, he says.

"What effect does that have on the future George Pattons of the world?" asks retired Army Col. Joseph J. Collins, who co-wrote a study for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "It's hard to be a risk-taker when you've been brought up with people telling you that force protection is the mission."

Retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward "Shy" Meyer, a legendary officer who helped rebuild the force after the Vietnam War, says he is "very concerned" by casualty aversion and is pressing for further study on its effects.

Sen. John McCain, who risked his life flying combat missions in Vietnam, faults President Clinton for ruling out in advance any use of American ground forces in Kosovo and for requiring U.S. planes to fly 15,000 feet above Kosovo to avoid Serbian artillery fire "because his pollsters told him about the heat he would take" in the event of American casualties.

"Unfortunately, when you fly around 15,000 feet, your bombs dropped more inaccurately, so they killed innocent civilians," McCain says, adding that taking greater care of soldiers than those they are sent to protect made Kosovo "one of the more immoral conflicts in history."

NATO military officers suspected casualty aversion last month when Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told Gen. Wesley K. Clark to avoid sending U.S. troops from their sector to hot spots such as Mitrovica, where Serbs and ethnic Albanians have been rioting.

Pentagon officials are also balking at sending more U.S. troops into Kosovo to patrol the increasingly tense border between Kosovo and Serbia. The U.S. definition for the mission, says one NATO military officer, "is nobody gets hurt and we get on home as soon as possible."

A senior Defense Department official strongly disputes talk that fear of casualties is driving U.S. policy in Kosovo. He says Shelton believed that sending U.S. troops to other parts of Kosovo would stretch forces too thin in the American sector, which has more incidents of violence than the area around Mitrovica.

The official also said that U.S. pilots flew safely at 15,000 feet and bombed their targets accurately with precision-guided weapons, and that the Pentagon found no evidence that flying three miles above the battlefield produced more civilian deaths.

He says that the decision not to use ground troops last year was spurred more by the alliance, rather than a reluctance by the United States: "We could not get NATO consensus to do that."

Nevertheless, a number of military analysts say Kosovo was the first war designed to avoid casualties, a logical progression from Somalia, the genesis of casualty aversion.

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