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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I'm Not Sure What This Means, But...

A throwaway comment somebody made today has been banging around in the back of my head for hours.  It had something to do with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) speaking on the BBC--presumably the World Service--about how rising US casualties in Iraq shows we're close to winning because that's what always happens when victory's around the corner.

That made me curious, so I decided check out the casualty trends and some other aspects of 3 major conflicts since WWII: Korea, Vietnam and Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.

As I am wont to do, I want to start off with a chart comparing the conflicts1:

I took a look at total annual deaths, which is admittedly not the most granular approach, but is the easiest to come up with based on public information2.  Anyway, the chart shows how casualty levels changed across the years of each conflict (Korea, 1950-1953; Vietnam, c.1965-1972, Afghanistan, 1979-1989).

Even though Korea's the odd duck because of its relatively short duration, you can see that none of the conflicts had increased fatalities when the end was imminent.  Quite the contrary, casualties tapered off as the end drew near, with spikes happening smack dab in the middle of Vietnam and Afghanistan.  Not only is that an objective fact, but it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, doesn't it?

What's also important to consider here is that these conflicts--in contrast to WWII, which is almost universally viewed as a "just war" and always had domestic support--were not very popular in the end3.  I've often wondered if this has been because, at least in our case with Korea and Vietnam, we weren't attacked or really directly threatened, and were essentially caught in the middle of civil wars.  When we were fighting the Axis, we were responding to an actual threat and fighting against monolithic state actors, which makes the goals clearer to the public and perhaps makes it more likely, if we show resolve, to be truly successful.

The RAND Corporation provides some insight with a 1996 report called Casualties and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations.  The study identified a few factors that influence public opinion:

  • The perceived benefits of the intervention.
  • The prospects for success.
  • Prospective and actual costs.
  • Changing expectations.

When you consider these points, it becomes immediately clear why support for our previous wars, as well as Iraq, fell.  Seems to not have really anything to do with wacko America-haters like me or coverage by evil liberal-dominated news outlets.

In fact, RAND tackles the media myth as well, specifically in the context of Somalia:

The evidence on Somalia does not suggest that the public and the government responded largely to televised imagery, that the majority of the public had desired that the United States “escalate to victory” as a result of casualties, or that a majority “demanded” an immediate withdrawal. In fact, Somalia represents another case in which the historical record suggests a more sensible and subtle response to increasing casualties and declining support: A plurality or majority has typically rejected both extreme options of escalation and immediate withdrawal and has remained unwilling to withdraw until a negotiated settlement and orderly withdrawal—including the return of U.S. servicemen—could be concluded.

Yeah, it's just one data point, but it also makes some intuitive sense overall.  I mean, sure media coverage might be slanted toward whatever narrative will "sell", but it does provide people with information.  Further, no amount of Happy Pixie Dust can really alter the objective facts: if people are losing family and friends in the conflict, if the war clearly is not going as originally advertised, if the initial reasons for fighting have evaporated, people are naturally going to do a cost-benefit analysis on their own, based on those factors RAND identified.

So the war apologists can bitch all they want, but the real reason the People have given up on these wars is because they make no damned sense at all.  And while it's perhaps true to a certain extent that domestic support really is key to victory, it's not the only key--in fact, it appears to be more of a lagging indicator of how a war is going.

When you get right down to it, home field advantage is hard to overcome.  No matter how positive the American public might be about our chances going into a conflict, the fact remains that we are projecting force far away, and we cannot forget that the other side has a homefront, too. 

Is it really possible to win a war, no matter how noble our goal, when its sole purpose is to impose our will on someone else?  Does any culture/nation/society really want somebody else to come in to "solve" their problems while destroying their country and killing their people?  Is the American solution right for everybody?

Finally, I would like you to consider a couple old posts of mine.  I recently retrieved stuff I wrote for the now-defunct Open Source Politics, and I think these are particularly germane to this discussion:

Long story a little shorter: I think Dana Rohrabacher (Remember him?  He inspired this whole mess!) is wrong, but more than that, I think he and all the other war supporters are really missing the point.  The increase in casualties means we're losing more people.  That's it.  It doesn't mean we're winning, or even that we're losing.  This is not a game where the score determines the winner.

Clausewitz was right that war is an extension of politics.  And that means, as has been observed in other treatments about exit strategies and the like, that political will is a necessary ingredient for victory (whatever that may be defined as).  But political will isn't created ex nihilo--it requires rightness of cause, honesty of convictions, and other intangibles that have nothing to do with how the kind of weapons we use, how many schools we paint, or whether CNN plays enough happy footage to keep the masses blindly supporting their leaders' wars.



1 - As in a similar post from a couple years ago, the scale is logarithmic.  The absolute comparison of casualty figures is not important; rather, it's the trends.

2 - Sources: Korea and Vietnam; Afghanistan (Soviet).

3 - I only have anecdotal evidence about Soviet opinion, mostly because I'm too tired to try searching for it and just want to finish the post!

November 30, 2005 | Permalink


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Thanks for writing this, NTodd. Lots to think about here.

Posted by: Ferdzy | Dec 2, 2005 6:20:11 AM

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