`Casualty aversion' overcome by terror

Many Americans prepared to accept military loss of life

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 17, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Ever since the last American soldier departed from the rooftops of Saigon more than 26 years ago, politicians and generals have doubted the nation's willingness to stomach military casualties.

Call it post-Vietnam syndrome, or "casualty aversion" -- it has contributed to hastened withdrawals in operations ranging from the victory in the Persian Gulf war to the aborted relief mission to Somalia.

For the moment, such timidity lies buried in the ruins of lower Manhattan and the Pentagon. With perhaps 5,000 American civilians dead from a terrorist attack, military losses suddenly seem like a palatable alternative.

"Our political leaders now understand they are leading a public that fears," said retired Col. Don M. Snider, a professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy. "The fear is palpable, and when people fear, they are willing to sacrifice to eliminate that fear."

"I think this is going to transform a generation," said Steven David, an expert on national security and terrorism, and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "My generation came of age in Vietnam, and now we have something else that may turn that around, something that will make people say, `My God, it's a dangerous world out there, and we've got to be tough; we've got to be resolute.'"

Military professionals and academics aren't the only people talking this way.

Harriot Crawmer, 75, a pharmacy technician who lives near the Pennsylvania crash site where one of the four hijacked jets went down, has a son in the Navy and feels enough Americans have died already.

Yet, she said, "I'm going to be one angry American if we don't do something. I have been hesitant in the past to send troops. But not this time. ... We're at war with them, as far as I'm concerned."

In a Time/CNN poll taken Thursday of 1,082 American adults, 55 percent favored a ground invasion "that would result in the loss of U.S. lives," with 38 percent opposed. More than 80 percent said they supported airstrikes and assassinations.

According to a growing school of thought among some military analysts, public support hasn't been an obstacle for quite some time in efforts to mobilize U.S. forces for action abroad. With opinion polls to support them, they argue that politicians are the ones who never regained their resolve, a reticence that has filtered down to the commanders in the field.

"The public resistance [to casualties] wasn't that great to begin with," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It was really overstated, and certainly in a situation like this, whatever resistance existed would be greatly diminished."

That would explain the opinion of such people as Vince Cuffari, 53, owner of a Hampden ice cream shop and an Air Force veteran who served in Southeast Asia during Vietnam.

"I don't want to see another Vietnam," he said, "[but we] should go after every one of them, take them all out. ... I don't want to take out somebody's pill factory. I want them to get a message: Never, never do it again."

But even with the public in a crusading mood, going to war against an unconventional enemy is a tricky business. Without clear targets or goals, pitfalls abound.

"This doesn't mean everyone is ready to head off pell-mell," Kull said. "Americans are pretty discriminating as to whether something is doing any good."

"If we end up in Afghanistan just sitting there, that's not going to be accepted," David said.

Maybe. Or maybe it is the politicians who will lose their nerve first, says Snider, another who believes that the public's "casualty aversion" is an overstated myth.

"We have political leaders who only think in the short term," he said. "The public thinks in much longer terms. They're raising children, saving for college, and I think politicians are still going to have trouble reading the public. So the real challenge is, can the politicians step up to the leadership challenge of a three- or five- or seven-year war, or will they, every time there is a setback, want to hunker down."

Whatever the case, retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward Meyer, who helped rebuild the force after Vietnam, said he hopes the political restraints that caused some commanders to rein in the actions of junior officers will be eased, if not relinquished.

"It has restricted a lot of activities that our armed forces could have accomplished, had they been turned loose," Meyer said. "No commander likes to lose soldiers, but if he starts out with [no casualties] as his goal, nobody is going to accomplish anything. I clearly think this is going to change now. ... You don't hear talk of any schisms now. What you hear is that this is the defense of the homeland that is at stake."

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