When soldiers fall

CASEY When soldiers fallNews of an important new book that feeds directly into my new project on medical-military machines and casualties of war, 1914-2014: Steven Casey‘s When Soldiers Fall: How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan (OUP, January 2014).  My own project is concerned with the precarious journeys of those wounded in war-zones (combatants and civilians) rather than those killed and the politics of ‘body-counts’, but Casey’s work presents a vigorous challenge to the usual assumptions about public responses to combat deaths:

The extent to which combat casualties influence the public’s support for war is one of the most frequently and fiercely debated subjects in current American life and has cast an enormous shadow over both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The common assumption, based largely on U.S. experience in past wars, is that the public is in some way casualty averse or casualty shy, and that as losses increase its support for a war will inexorably decline. Yet this assumption has been adopted as conventional wisdom without any awareness of one of the most important dimensions of the issue: how has the public become aware of the casualties sustained during particular wars? To what extent has the government tried to manipulate or massage the figures? When and why have these official figures been challenged by opportunistic political opponents or aggressive scoop-seeking reporters?

As Steven Casey demonstrates, at key moments in most wars what the public actually receives is not straightforward and accurate casualty totals, but an enormous amount of noise based on a mixture of suppression, suspicion, and speculation. This book aims to correct this gap in information by showing precise what casualty figures the government announced during its various wars, the timing of these announcements, and any spin officials may have placed upon these, using a range of hitherto untapped primary documents. Among the nuggets he has uncovered is that during World War I the media depended on Axis figures and that the Army and Navy did not announce casualty figures for an entire year during World War II. Organized chronologically, the book addresses the two world wars, the limited wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the recent conflicts that are part of the War on Terror. Using sources such as the private military command papers of Generals Patton, MacArthur, and Westmoreland, and previously unopened New York Times archives, it offers the first analysis of how the U.S. government has publicized combat casualties during these wars, and how these official announcements have been debated and disputed by other voices in the polity. Casey discusses factors such as changes of presidential administration, the improvement of technology, the sending of war correspondents to cover multiple conflicts, and the increasing ability to identify bodies. Casey recreates the complicated controversies that have surrounded key battles, and in doing so challenges the simplicity of the oft-repeated conventional wisdom that “as casualties mount, support decreases.” By integrating military and political history, he presents a totally new interpretation of U.S. domestic propaganda since 1917, filling a major gap left by a spate of recent books. Finally, it provides a fresh and engaging new perspective on some of the biggest battles in recent American history, including the Meuse-Argonne, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, China’s intervention in the Korean War, the Tet Offensive, and the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amazon has temporarily withdrawn its Kindle edition because there are technical issues that it is working with OUP to resolve: I hope this is sorted out soon…  But for now you can read an extract over at Salon, ‘How Richard Nixon reinvented American warfare (…and paved the way for Iraq and Afghanistan)’:

Determined to prop up South Vietnam in an election year, Nixon’s casualty sensitivity had not extended beyond American lives to enemy noncombatants. “Now, we won’t deliberately aim for civilians,” he told his senior advisers at one point in 1972, “but if a few bombs slop over, that’s just too bad.” In Nixon cold calculation the American electorate was principally concerned with U.S. losses; it cared far less about what happened to civilians….

In the wake of defeat, the U.S. government tried to learn the appropriate lessons. As well as reconsidering military-media relations, officials thought long and hard about the conditions under which the public would support the use of force—and the prospect of casualties—in the future. Sometimes, they looked back beyond Vietnam to an earlier era when the media had appeared more manageable and the public less skeptical. Of course, even during the two world wars and Korea, the government had always faced searching questions about the veracity of its casualty information. But Vietnam had clearly changed the rules of the game. Trust in government was much lower. The media was even keener to probe for the story behind the official narrative. And the whole debate was now even more sensitive to the human cost of war. These were all legacies that the two Bushes would have to grapple with in the post–Cold War era, as they took the United States into war against a new set of enemies.