What Will America Risk?

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview
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What Will America Risk?

A Survey of Recent Articles

When the United States has used military force in the Balkans and other hot spots in recent years, protecting the lives of its pilots and soldiers has been a high priority--too high, some analysts contend. As several make clear in Aerospace Power Journal (Summer 2000) and elsewhere, they worry that the world's only superpower is losing the ability to use force effectively, thus encouraging foes and quite possibly costing many more lives.

In the Kosovo operation of 1999, President Bill Clinton early on explicitly ruled out the use of ground hoops, and pilots serving under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), mostly Americans, were ordered to fly above 15,000 feet to avoid being shot down. On the ground below, the Serbian army was largely able to keep out of the bombs' way, and its "ethnic cleansing" accelerated. Thousands of Kosovar Albanians were killed and more than one million forcibly displaced. Then, after the 78 days of bombing ended in a self-proclaimed NATO victory, with nary an American life lost U.S. hoops became "peacekeepers." But once again, self-protection was paramount R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post (Oct. 5, 1999) reported. Whereas British soldiers, for instance, were widely dispersed and patrolled on foot in small numbers, most of the Americans were based in an isolated, protected enclave, allowed out only in helicopters or convoys of armored vehicles.

This is "force-protection fetishism," argues Jeffrey Record, a professor at the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Alabama, and one of several writers addressing U.S. attitudes toward casualties in the same issue of Aerospace Power Journal. "Was preserving the life of a single American pilot--a volunteer professional--worth jeopardizing the lives of 1,600,000 Kosovar Albanians and God-knows-how-many future victims of Serbian aggression?" Record asks. If protecting the lives of American pilots and soldiers is the top priority, why not just keep them home?

Vincent J. Goulding, Jr., a marine colonel, asserts in Parameters (Summer 2000) that in Kosovo, the United States "sent the strongest possible signal that while it is willing to conduct military operations in situations not vital to the country's national interests, it is not willing to put in harm's way the means necessary to conduct these operations effectively and conclusively."

The excessive concern with casualties, these analysts say, not only hinders accomplishment of the mission, but also makes it harder to credibly threaten the use of force in the future. Slobodan Milosevic, Record notes, "called the West's bluff repeatedly and successfully during the war in Bosnia and later rejected NATO's ultimatum on Kosovo."

In Somalia--an example often cited by those who hold that Americans will not tolerate casualties--the United States swiftly withdrew its forces after 18 American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu in 1993. But while public support for the mission did fall after the deaths, it had also dropped sharply before the firefight, notes James Burk, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, in Political Science Quarterly (Spring 1999). The public did not go along when the humanitarian famine-relief effort turned into an attempt to end the civil war in Somalia and build a new nation.

Citing a 1996 RAND study, U.S. Air Force Major Charles K. Hyde writes in Aerospace Power Journal that Americans balance their regard for human life "within a continuous cost-benefit analysis.... It is only logical that [increased] casualties will result in a decline in public support unless an increase in the benefits or prospects for success offsets that cost."

A recent study by the Triangle Institute for Strategic Studies, Hyde points out, found that the public "is far more tolerant of potential casualties" than its leaders are.

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