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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Iraq: the war dead

Thanks to the so-called "rally 'round the flag" effect, war is initially popular with the American public. Virtually all wars become less popular, however, and political scientist John Mueller argues that the casualty figures matter:
American troops have been sent into harm's way many times since 1945, but in only three cases -- Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq -- have they been drawn into sustained ground combat and suffered more than 300 deaths in action. American public opinion became a key factor in all three wars, and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases. Broad enthusiasm at the outset invariably erodes.
To date, nearly 3300 US soldiers have died in Iraq.

What is sometimes missed, however, is that this figure would likely be much higher if it weren't for modern medicine. Consider this fact presented by physician Ronald Glasser:
In Iraq, the American military has lost one for every ten soldiers hit in combat, compared to a one-in-four fatality rate in Vietnam, and one in three during the Second World War.
If the current war had occurred thirty years ago, it is quite likely that there would be more than 8000 dead. Within this coming year, America might have been expecting its 10,000th casualty.

Obviously, no one can be sure if a greater number of American victims would make the war even less popular than it already is.

In any event, I would note that another scholar, Christopher Gelpi , challenges Mueller's claim. Gelpi argues that the key indicator of public support is public perception of a war's success -- or failure:
public support for a military operation will erode sharply in the face of mounting casualties when the public believes the war is failing but will remain relatively robust when the public believes the war is succeeding. This argument is based on extensive analyses of scores of surveys...
It would seem logical that a high number of American war deaths would help foster a perception of failure.

It will be interesting to see if American perceptions of the war are influenced by the recent declaration by cleric Moqtada Sadr, who told his followers that US forces are "your arch enemy." Hundreds of thousands of Shia responded by protesting non-violently in the holy city of Najaf.

Their message was clear: "No, no, no to America." They want the US troops out of Iraq.

Based on the polling data, most Americans also want the US troops out of Iraq soon. Though there's been a slight uptick since "the surge" began, most Americans say "not too well" (32%) or "not at all well" (24%) when asked by Pew Research: "How well is the US military effort in Iraq going?

A few months ago, a combined 64% of respondents answered "not too well" or "not at all well," so the surge may be buying the Bush administration some time. In March, 10% responded "very well" and 30% said "fairly well." In the prior six polls since September 2006, the average for those responses had been about 6% and 28%, respectively.

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