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Profile: American Officials Seldom Speculate Publicly About The Number And Scope Of Possible Combat Casualties

Weekend Edition Sunday: October 13, 2002

Iraq Casualties

BRIAN NAYLOR, host:

The Pentagon is sending Army and Marine Corps battle staffs to Kuwait, apparently stepping up preparations for war with neighboring Iraq. The Defense Department is also saying it will probably order smallpox shots for American troops sent to the Middle East, anticipating that Iraq might employ germ warfare. The unpredictability of an Iraqi military response poses a number of challenges to the US war planning effort. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the uncertainty helps explain why American officials seldom speculate publicly about the number and scope of possible combat casualties.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

The issue of US casualties is certainly implicit in any discussion about war with Iraq, but the C-word has hardly passed the lips of the elected men and women who recently took to the floor of the House and Senate. Democrat and West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, a staunch opponent of the Iraq resolution which passed, is one of the few who confronted the issue of civilian and military dead.

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, Virginia): Of course we do not talk about this. We talk about taking out Saddam Hussein. We're talking about taking out Iraq, about regime change. Before I vote for this resolution for war, a war in which thousands, perhaps tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people may die, I want more time, I want more evidence, I want to know that I am right, that our nation is right, and not just powerful.

WESTERVELT: The Pentagon and White House have said almost nothing publicly about possible casualty predictions. Jan Davis, spokeswoman for the Department of Defense's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, cited national security concerns in declining to discuss even the analytical methods and computer models now used for predicting war casualties in general. Asked how al-Qaeda or other US enemies might use the bare essentials of casualty computer modeling against America, Davis said only, "I don't know. But the world has changed since September 11th," end quote.

One reason for the reluctance, experts say, is the Pentagon's post-Vietnam record of badly overestimating the military strength of enemy states. The Pentagon's projections for US deaths in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, were way off. The Pentagon estimated more than 10,000 US troops could die in Desert Storm. In fact, about 150 troops were killed in direct enemy combat. Several former commanders contacted by NPR say those combat estimates were made in part using data from tank battle deaths in wars 50 years ago.

General PAUL FUNK (Retired): Those were based upon past experiences, mainly World War II.

WESTERVELT: General Paul Funk, now retired, commanded the 3rd Armored Division during the Gulf War.

Gen. FUNK: Frankly, we didn't have any other models for that kind of a war. You never want to underestimate your enemy. We felt that they had the capability and the equipment to inflict higher casualties on us. We loved the fact that they didn't.

WESTERVELT: Today the Iraqi army is down about a third of its Gulf War size. One military official says quantitative casualty modeling has improved since then. In addition to historical analysis, the source said, the Pentagon is including more data from recent conflicts such as the Balkans and Afghanistan. Experts will try to paint a full picture of war with elaborate, detailed computer models that aim to mimic the actions of even small military units, specific weapons and aircraft. This time around, casualty modeling will put more emphasis on potential urban warfare, the source said, and the possibility that a desperate Saddam Hussein might unleash biological or chemical weapons.

But does a more complex model mean more accurate casualty estimates? Iraq expert Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution is skeptical.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): The problem is that these models don't necessarily do any better just because they're more sophisticated, and at the time of Desert Storm, they were actually the worst. People on the outside did a much better job of getting in the right ballpark. The Pentagon's models were much more elaborate and much more wrong. So somehow trying to get all these technologies just so in the model may put almost too much faith on the specifics of high-technology simulation and not enough on the role of the individual soldier, on the role of command, on the role of tactics.

WESTERVELT: Solid intelligence is an underpinning of accurate casualty models. Thomas Houlahan, director of the Military Assessment Program at James Madison University, says faulty spy work is undermining assessment of Iraq's capabilities.

Mr. THOMAS HOULAHAN (Director, Military Assessment Program, James Madison University): You began to get stuff filtering out of the CIA that they were putting together T-72s that had been blown up in the Gulf War. Now anyone who knows anything about tanks knows that when you pack a tank full of explosives and blow it up from the inside-out and the blow the turret off of it, that tank will never serve again. But apparently there are CIA analysts who actually believe that you can put a tank together after it's been blown up.

WESTERVELT: Not surprisingly, whenever pollsters include the word `major casualties' in their questions, public support for military action against Iraq drops significantly. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, support for war slumps from 64 percent to 48 when the phrase `thousands of casualties' is added to the question. It is a bit of a one-sided question. Polltakers raised casualties as a cost of war without talking about the benefit of war such as removing a dictator with weapons of mass destruction. Pew Center director Andrew Kohut says it's hard to tell whether the poll numbers will accurately predict the real impact of US casualties on the American people.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Pew Center Director): They have great difficulty in judging what the reaction will be, and justifiably so--the way in which casualties occur, the context of wars and the actual situation, whether it's a winning short battle or a long drawn-out quagmire. All of these things affect the way people might actually respond to casualties in the real world as opposed to the way they respond to a pollster's question.

WESTERVELT: Generals and pundits alike fear the public has grown conditioned to expect low casualties. There were no US direct combat deaths in Kosovo and relatively few in Afghanistan. That fact, one commander said, may have only bolstered the myth that in modern combat, few Americans lose their lives. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.

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From March 18 to June 21, 2002, Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen will serve as an interim host on All Things Considered, while its co-host Noah Adams is on leave to write a book. Until Hansen returns to Weekend Edition Sunday in July, NPR's Lynn Neary will host.