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COLUMN ONE : Wishing for a War Without Blood : Americans' low tolerance for casualties causes some to wonder whether the U.S. has the fortitude to undertake a major military operation.


WASHINGTON — The images are haunting still: the twisted wrecks of helicopter gunships shot down in the Oct. 3, 1993, firefight that killed 18 U.S. Army Rangers in Somalia; the charred body of an American soldier paraded through the streets of Mogadishu by a chanting crowd.

Vivid even now, they are driving the national debate--leading to today's scheduled vote in the Senate--over President Clinton's plan to send 20,000 U.S. ground troops on a potentially hazardous peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I don't want to see the . . . corpse[s] of Americans dragged through another city like they did at the war in Mogadishu," Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) admonished top Clinton administration policymakers at a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

No less an internationalist than Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) has misgivings.

"When body bags come home, as they're likely to do," he warned at the same hearing, there will be "tremendous pressure" to bring the American troops back home, well before their one-year mission is up.

To some policymakers and top military planners, the public's seemingly low tolerance for U.S. military casualties poses a fundamental question: Do Americans still have the fortitude to undertake a serious military operation, particularly for global peacekeeping?

Senior military leaders have complained privately that public expectations for a "bloodless war" have grown so high that planners feel pressed to avoid riskier military ventures for fear of setting off the kind of backlash that Cohen predicts.

Moreover, they say, America's adversaries have learned to play on the public's fear of casualties as a way to hamstring U. S. forces. Americans' preoccupation with the whereabouts of Air Force Capt. Scott F. O'Grady, downed over Bosnia in June, impeded NATO air strikes there for almost a week before he was rescued.

"The expectations are so high in this regard--it's so troublesome," former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan told Congress recently.

Feeding these expectations is the memory of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Its low overall casualty rate and footage of precision-guided munitions dropping into Iraqi chimneys heightened the public conviction that modern war could, finally, be almost risk-free.

Military analysts say the heightened concern over casualties to some degree reflects longer-term changes both in American society and in the makeup of the armed forces.

The end of the Cold War has removed the last big, overriding threat that had prompted generations of Americans to accept heavy casualties as a likely consequence of conflict between the superpowers.

And today's military, more professional and made up entirely of volunteers, is far better educated and better trained than the armed forces in previous generations. Its soldiers regard the military more as a career than as a brief call to battle.

The record suggests that Americans' distaste for combat casualties in strange corners of the globe is not totally new. The deaths stemming from the 1993 firefight in Somalia, for example, set off an immediate push in Congress to compel the administration to pull U.S. troops out of the country even though the American mission was far from accomplished.

The firefight also sparked a barrage of criticism of the United Nations, for ostensibly ordering the raid. Actually, both the chief U.N. envoy and the commander of U.N. forces in Somalia were Americans, and military experts say it was mainly their mistakes that led to the disaster.

The October 1983 truck bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut--which killed 241 U.S. servicemen--prompted then-President Ronald Reagan to bring American troops home immediately, for fear that to delay might spark a public backlash that would force him to order a retreat later.

Here too analysts have placed much of the blame on U.S. leaders: first, for openly aiding the Israelis a few days before the bombing, thus abandoning any claim to evenhanded treatment of the Arabs; and second, for failing to take adequate security precautions at the barracks.

Americans have not always been so reluctant to accept casualties once the battle is finally joined. U.S. commanders in World War II and the Korean War often sent troops into battle with the assumption that large numbers would be killed.

By today's standards, the American tolls of those wars were spectacular: more than 400,000 killed and 670,000 wounded in World War II; more than 33,000 killed and 100,000 injured in Korea. While the nation grieved for the dead and wounded, it accepted the casualties as part of the cost of war.

All that changed with the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, when television cameras brought grisly color footage of battlefield deaths--and the return of soldiers and airmen in body bags--into the nation's living rooms.

Then came the Gulf War--the "mother of all battles," in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's memorable phrase.

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