Combat Expectations: War Without Loss

It used to be that war was hell. Now, in some circles, it’s expected to be heck at worst.

Ever since laser-guided smart bombs entered the national lexicon, there’s been a growing impression that war can, or at least should, be waged without civilian casualties.

Indeed, the first question at Tuesday’s Pentagon press briefing, as it does almost every day, dealt with Taliban claims of civilian casualties at a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clark said she was uncertain of the hospital report, but did acknowledge that three U.S. bombs went astray in Afghanistan over the weekend, landing in a civilian neighborhood near Kabul and near a senior citizens' center in Herat.

Clark said she was not sure of the casualty figures from the incidents, and stressed that there is bound to be unintended damage in a large, ongoing campaign.

“We take extraordinary care on the targeting process,” she said by way of explanation. “Our targets are military.  Our targets are Al Qaeda.  That is what we're going after… We care deeply about the loss of life, unlike the people who, on September 11, went to great pains to kill thousands of innocent people.”

The constant questions about body counts, both civilian and military, must be a thorn in the Pentagon’s side, says Randolph Hennes, a professor of military history at the University of Washington.

“I’m sure the military often thinks it’s paralyzed,” Hennes said. “We’ve become so much sensitized to casualties.”

Such squeamishness is a relatively new phenomenon. During World War II, Allied forces decimated the German cities of Dresden and Berlin, killing 300,000 civilians. In the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone, the toll was well over 100,000. In total, some 25 million civilians died on both sides during World War II.

Fast forward to Vietnam, when warfare became a fixture of the evening news and the images of grieving civilians — not to mention injured soldiers — forever changed the face of war.

"It was the first war that Americans saw live," says Bill Rorabaugh, a history professor at the University of Washington. “It brought the war to the television set with a kind of immediacy that had not been true in earlier wars."

During Desert Storm, the bar was raised even higher. Planners said to prepare for thousands of military casualties, but the final toll turned out to be 98. Then, former President Bill Clinton took the strategy to new extremes with his aversion to putting troops in harm's way in the Balkan conflicts of his presidency, often preferring to fight the war from the air.

Opponents have learned to capitalize on America’s aversion to casualties of any sort. Saddam Hussein escorted Western media through bombed out sections of Bagdad during the Gulf War. America’s involvement in Somalia came to an end shortly after followers of warlord Mohammed Aidid dragged the bodies of American GIs through the streets of Mogadishu.

But it may be just the press, along with reluctant foreign leaders, who are concerned about civilian tolls in the conflict.  Americans at large appear to have stronger stomachs.

A recent Gallup poll found four out of five Americans agreeing with the statement that civilian casualties are an unavoidable aspect of war. One of those who clearly agrees with that statement is 69-year-old North Carolina native Johnny Vaughn, a former master sergeant himself.

``They're talking about civilians getting killed there,'' he said of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan. ``What do they think got killed here? They were just going to work. They hadn't even sat down to have their morning cup of coffee and, `Boom!' ... Lay the juice to them.''

The Associated Press contributed to this report.