Document created: 21 February 01
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Spring  2001

Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.



A great country cannot wage a little war.

—Duke of Wellington

Political-Military Engagement Policy

Casualty Avoidance and the American Public

Kent D. Johnson*

 *Kent Johnson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a former A-10/F-15E fighter pilot and political-military advisor. Currently, he is director of international business development for an advanced interactive multimedia software-development corporation in Washington, D.C.

RECENTLY WE HAVE heard much discussion regarding the apparent unwillingness of the American people to accept casualties during military conflicts. Indeed, many commentators insist that the American casualty-avoidance mind-set has so hamstrung the US political leadership that it faces monumental political risk by supporting any military operation that generates casualties. In a broad sense, this sweeping generalization has its merits when one recognizes the influence of American public opinion on US military-engagement decisions. However, to say that the American public is so squeamish that it is unwilling to accept casualties in all military engagements is wrong-headed and ignores many complicating factors, such as the role of the media, mission objectives, the threat to US vital interests, and a phenomenon I call the “Family Factor,” described below. What follows is an explanation of how these elements combine to form an easily understood theory of why Americans are not actually phobic about military casualties.

After the disastrous results of a poorly led military adventure in Vietnam, everyone generally agreed there would be “no more Vietnams.” That experience deeply affected the American public, who felt that any future military operation ran the risk of escalating into another ill-considered and poorly led conflict. This concern ran through the military as well. Indeed, as young, professional soldiers fighting a war the political leadership would not let them win, Gen Colin Powell and Gen Norman Schwarzkopf were profoundly influenced by their experiences in Vietnam and became strong supporters of the “Weinberger doctrine,” which became a major factor in our Gulf War victory and in the retention of public support for Operation Desert Storm, despite the threat of thousands of American casualties.

Speaking to the National Press Club in November 1984, Caspar W. Weinberger, President Reagan’s secretary of defense, set out what he considered appropriate conditions for the use of American troops: (1) when political efforts fail; (2) when one intends to win; (3) when the mission is vital to US national interests; (4) when one has well-defined political and military goals and an end state one is fighting to achieve; (5) when one is willing to reassess the size, composition and mission; and (6) when one has the support of the American people. Of all these conditions, I think a well-defined and well-understood “vital national interest” is key to ensuring American public support, which, in turn, influences all other criteria. Further, differentiating between “vital national interest” and “national interest” is critical to understanding the apparently conflicted casualty-avoidance mind-set of Americans.

A vital national interest is directly tied to the peace and security of the United States. If such an interest is threatened, the peace and security—the very survival—of the nation may be at risk. Therefore, defense of vital national interests requires a commitment to fight and, if need be, die for them. Because countries need oil in the same way humans need water, the free flow of oil from the Middle East is vital to the peace and security of the United States. Therefore, it is a vital national interest. Public support for defending a vital national interest ensures that casualties, while mourned, will not necessarily undermine American involvement or commitment to fight and win.

A national interest, however, is related to the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Such principles as economic freedom, individual liberty, and human rights are very important to the American public and the US government. Indeed, because of our belief in the rights of people to be free and self-determining, it is in the best interest of the United States to globally support and promote economic freedom, individual liberty, and human rights. Although promoting the national interest is worthy of political and economic support, it is not worth fighting and losing American lives. In this case, the American people would not support foreign military intervention to promote national interests because there is no direct threat to the peace and security of the United States. For example, President Clinton recently declared the spread of AIDS in Africa a national-security threat to the United States. Obviously, AIDS in Africa, while definitely an item of national interest, is hardly a threat to our peace and security.

Understanding the difference between a vital national interest and a national interest is crucial to comprehending the “Family Factor,” mentioned earlier. That is, the president may declare that something is vital to the national security of the United States, but until his judgment is validated by the American people (i.e., parents), this issue/threat is simply not going to be worth the nation’s blood. In that case, parents will object, and the political risk associated with placing American troops in harm’s way is very real—and very dangerous.

On the one hand, as I see it, the probability of the United States becoming involved in a low-intensity military operation is high (fig. 1). For example, the United States has involved itself in over half of the 39 peacekeeping missions undertaken by the United Nations (UN) since 1943. On the other hand, the probability of the United States engaging in a high-intensity war is low—witness the fact that this country engaged in only four major regional conflicts (MRC) (World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War) in the same period. Thus, the relationship between the two variables is essentially linear.

Figure 1. Probability of Occurrence

Figure 1. Probability of Occurrence

Historically, it is clear that the US approach to warfare reflects a great reluctance on the part of its people to enter into a fight. Nonetheless, once engaged, the American people are capable of a ferocious fight—something that has occurred only a few times in US history. Of course, as we have seen after both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the cold war, the American people “build down” the military soon after their victory—intent upon living peaceful lives, uninvolved in the affairs of others, and unencumbered by foreign entanglements. Indeed, the number of people at arms decreased from a high of over 14.9 million during World War II to fewer than a million in 1950; from 1.95 million during the Vietnam conflict to 1.1 million shortly thereafter; and from nearly 2.2 million during the cold war to today’s count of barely 1.4 million.

This approach works when conflicts are essentially well understood, the issues are clear, the time to respond is sufficient, and the issues are resolved cleanly. However, with “peacekeeping” missions exploding worldwide as the UN attempts to wrestle with intrastate ethnic strife (Kosovo) and interstate conflict (Cyprus), the likelihood of the United States becoming involved in “dirty” missions is significant, and the time required to build up does not exist.

Blood risk is always a factor when the United States employs troops, regardless of whether they merely stand between warring factions in a nation-building peacekeeping mission (Somalia) or whether they directly challenge an enemy who wishes to destroy their country (World War II). The risk of casualties is quite low during operations that do not involve active and sustained combat. However, blood risk explodes once we switch to actual combat environments (fig. 2). Regardless, in all cases, the deployment and use of military troops carry political risk.

Figure 2. Blood Risk

Figure 2. Blood Risk

Political risk is an ever-present element in any combat operation, no matter how just the cause, because the American people have a healthy distrust of the government and rightfully wish to examine critically any activity that results in American deaths and injuries. Therefore, one would imagine that a direct relationship exists between blood risk and political risk. Curiously, however, this is not the case.

Figure 3. Political Risk (Peacekeeping)

Figure 3. Political Risk (Peacekeeping)

Whereas blood risk is initially low and increases only slightly as we move further along the peacekeeping portion of the graph (fig. 2), political risk does not follow the same gradient. Indeed, at the first indication of American casualties, political risk skyrockets (fig. 3). This makes no sense until one recalls the political influence of the American people (parents). As mentioned earlier, in the final analysis these people determine what is and is not a vital national interest worthy of losing American lives. Peacekeeping missions, by definition, do not involve a vital national interest. Thus, regardless of the mission’s importance, unless the president can convince parents that the mission is worth their children’s lives, substantial political risk ensues. However, if the military operation is in defense of the vital national security of the United States, as in the Gulf War, at least they understand why their children are in danger, and political risk drops off significantly (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Political Risk (Fighting in Defense of America)

Figure 4. Political Risk (Fighting in Defense of America)

Of course, these same parents are not as understanding when the threat to vital national security is unclear or just plain absent (Somalia, Kosovo). In these cases, they do not understand why their sons or daughters are at risk, and political support evaporates rapidly when casualties mount and people ask questions regarding threats to the vital national interest (Somalia). This has the effect of placing the political leadership squarely in the Family Factor (fig. 5), which exerts great influence upon political-military decisions. In America, the people determine—by means of either their own insight or some external influence—whether or not the mission supports vital national interests. So it is crucial to the success of military operations that the US political leadership convince Americans that vital national interests are at stake, thus moving the political-risk “hump” as far to the left as possible in order to escape the Family Factor.

Figure 5. Family Factor

Figure 5. Family Factor

Once politicians understand the relationship between vital and nonvital national interests, it should be very easy for them to determine whether or not the American people will tolerate a military mission likely to result in US casualties. One wonders why the US political leadership and media elite have such difficulty understanding this concept. Perhaps the answer lies in the influence of the media elite on shaping public policy, a phenomenon known as the Cable News Network (CNN) factor, which usually tracks the following scenario:

1. CNN covers a tragedy somewhere in the world.

2. Naturally, because Americans have big hearts, they demand action, and the United States embarks upon a “do something” mission.

3. Troops are dispatched but operate under severe restrictions because the political leadership knows that casualties generate political risk.

4. The media cover the deployment, complete with interviews of American soldiers who say on camera, “Gee, it’s nice to be able to go help someone.”

5. American support for the deployment soars.

6. Casualties inevitably occur, and people raise questions about the cost of the mission.

7. Leadership places more restrictions upon American troops to avoid any further casualties.

8. Media interest wanes, and other events attract the public’s attention.

9. Americans are now stuck. They cannot fight to achieve a well-defined goal and “win,” and they cannot just leave.

10. The mission continues with no definition of victory and no objective other than avoiding casualties at all cost.

This situation exactly mirrors the Bosnia mission. After leadership initially assured the American people that our involvement would last only a year (maybe a little more), our presence continues unabated—with no end in sight. Ill-considered and reflexive missions engaged in by politicians who respond to emotional appeals result in bad policy decisions—both international and domestic.

So what should we do? First, we should insist upon responsible political leadership that is willing to lead the American people and not follow media-driven public-opinion polls that measure feelings and emotion. Second, we should insist upon responsible media that will fully investigate a tragedy and ask the question (and honestly report the answer) “Sad as this situation is, is it a threat to a vital national interest of the United States and therefore worth the loss of American lives?” Third, we should insist upon an informed and thoughtful American public. All too often in TV America, the public becomes emotive—feeling rather than thinking about a situation. Feelings usually result in do-something missions that do nothing to defend vital national interests of the United States.

Past experience clearly indicates where vital national interests lie, and the American people seem to agree. The example of oil, used previously, is apropos. Like water, it is necessary for life and important enough to risk American lives.

The American people can be remarkably tolerant when it comes to casualties. They have not become casualty-averse but have simply become averse to casualties from missions that do not defend the vital interest of the nation. 

Springfield, Virginia


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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