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U.S. told to expect casualties

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Early in the buildup to the Persian Gulf War, the first President Bush speculated to military aides that with brute air power, "We can knock 'em out in 24 hours."

The new Bush administration is trying to brace Americans for war with a different type of foe and greater loss of life.

"Antiseptic warfare," said defense chief Donald H. Rumsfeld, "will not work with this enemy." That was on Sunday.

"There will be costs," said Bush. That was on Monday.

"This is not a risk-free operation," said Gen. Joseph Ralston, commander of NATO forces. That was on Tuesday.

For a quarter-century, Americans have largely been spared such costs.

The Gulf War wasn't nearly as tidy as the first Bush initially hoped -- 500,000 American troops were deployed and 148 lost their lives -- but there was no massive loss of life.

Likewise, other recent U.S. military actions cost relatively few lives. There were no U.S. combat losses during the military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 nor in the Bosnian airstrikes in 1995. There were 29 combat deaths in Somalia during the U.S. operation to restore political stability and combat famine nearly a decade ago.

But the tools of warfare used so effectively in many recent military operations -- cruise missiles flying off in the night, planes delivering "smart" bombs from 20,000 feet -- won't provide an easy answer this time, Rumsfeld warns.

'Our way of life'

"What this war is about is our way of life," he says, "and our way of life is worth losing lives for."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who recounted the first President Bush's hopes for a quick end to the Gulf War in his autobiography, now warns that the fight against the terrorists won't be solved "in one day or one week but it'll be a long-term campaign."

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the administration's efforts to prepare Americans for greater casualties are part of a broader effort "to be credible in terms of their threats to do something concrete."

The message is designed for an audience that extends well beyond U.S. borders.

"It's part of a general approach of preparing both the American public and the Congress as well as various targeted groups abroad for the determination of the administration to do something in response to what happened and maybe to go beyond something that is merely punitive to trying to unravel the terrorist networks," he said.

Ready to pay price

For now, at least, a good share of the American people say they are ready to pay the price.

About nine in 10 in recent polls say they favor a military response, although the support level drops when people are asked about an operation that results in a large number of U.S. troops killed or injured.

In a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, for example, 88 percent said the United States should take military action in retaliation for the terrorist attacks. But the support level dropped to 65 percent when people were asked about a military operation that resulted in the loss of 1,000 American troops.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings, said that after an attack like last week's, "Americans can be expected to have a toughness and a willingness to take casualties."

Over past the few decades, "the consistent story is that when the stakes are low and the mission is not promising, people are not all that tolerant of casualties," he said. "But when there's a sense of professionalism and care in the way the mission is conducted, the promise of victory and important stakes involved, you have a considerable willingness on the part of the American people to do what it takes to win."

In this case, he said, "the real question is whether Bush can come up with a strategy that works."


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Nancy Benac has covered government and national affairs from Washington for more than 15 years.


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