Since Vietnam all media organizations had imbibed the conventional wisdom about the public’s apparent averseness to casualties. Leading political scientists, they knew, taught that the public was casualty-intolerant; that popular support would inevitably ebb when the country lost a particular number of troops. Whatever the accuracy of this thesis—and a number of political scientists were in the process of offering refinements or serious challenges—its eye-catching simplicity made it a staple of the media discourse. Whenever troops were committed to war and the first casualties were sustained, many editors turned to John Mueller and his followers for comment. They also published polls that sought to establish if casualties were influencing domestic levels of support for the fight. And they sent reporters on to the streets to monitor the public’s sensitivity to losses in the current fight. What did the average voter think about the present casualty totals? What if casualties rose precipitously? What level did they think was acceptable?
At first, the Bush administration found the results reassuring. Before the invasion, opinion polls found that a majority of Americans thought that removing Saddam from power was “worth the potential loss of American life.” In early April, when the death toll was eighty-eight, a voter-in-the-street interview found the dominant mood even more robust. “Casualties had not eroded . . . support for the war,” the interviewer recorded, and most people “could accept two, three, or even ten times as many deaths in the coming weeks, as long as success was in sight.” These last six words were a potentially significant caveat, but they were by no means the only warning sign. The new type of media coverage also appeared to be exerting an impact. “Many people,” the interviewer added, “said the limited number of casualties, as recorded by the twenty-four-hour news coverage, has made each life lost seem more poignant.” It remained to be seen how the public would react to such poignancy, especially if success in Iraq no longer appeared imminent.
On May 1 this did not seem a problem. That day, in a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush declared that the Iraq mission had been accomplished. After praising the skill and devotion of America’s soldiers, as well as mourning those who would never return, Bush went on to emphasize the advantages of his new type of warfare. In the world war era, he observed, the United States had relied on massive military power “to end a regime by breaking a nation.” Now, he declared, “with new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war; yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.”
Unfortunately for Bush, even as he spoke, his way of war was unraveling fast. In April the lightning advance might have ended Saddam’s regime, apparently at little cost, but by May it had also created numerous unforeseen problems. One was the survival of units loyal to Saddam. In their dash for Baghdad, American forces had bypassed many fedayeen militias, in the belief that they would “die on the vine” when Saddam was overthrown. In actuality, the fedayeen ultimately survived to fight another day. Worse, these Iraqi militias were now primed to fight an unconventional insurgency of the type that U.S. forces were ill prepared to counter. They could also rely on outside support, partly because Rumsfeld’s army on the ground was much smaller than the 380,000 that some military planners had estimated would be required to both police Iraq and seal its borders.
Nor had Bush anticipated the internal problems that soon erupted inside Iraq. Before the invasion Bush and his team had scarcely considered postwar planning, blithely convinced that Iraqis would greet U.S. forces as “liberators” before creating a stable democracy that would become a key American ally. The reality was quite different. Saddam’s sudden ouster initially resulted in wave of massive looting. When the Americans then abruptly removed all former Baathist Party members from positions of authority, many ministries, hospitals, and schools stopped functioning. In a country divided between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, membership in Saddam’s party had provided not just work but also one of Iraq’s “few unifying national institutions.” As a vacuum developed at the center, Iraq threatened to divide into ungovernable—even warring—factions.
For American troops on the ground it was a bewildering time. Trained for combat, they suddenly faced a disconcerting array of requests from Iraqi civilians about water supplies, garbage collection, and freedom of movement. Given orders to oust Saddam, secure Iraq’s oil fields, and locate the WMD, they had no instructions for dealing with the endemic looting. Then they started to come under attack from insurgents. Throughout the summer, as temperatures soared well above 100oF, violence flared across Iraq. Instead of a quick return home, the 130,000 soldiers and marines faced a new war, albeit one that varied from region to region. In the north the 101st Airborne under Gen. David Petraeus emphasized nation building as well as insurgency fighting. In the region west of Baghdad, by contrast, a savage war was underway, while Baghdad itself became the scene of a growing number of terrorist bombings. Nevertheless, wherever they were based, all American troops faced roughly the same outlook: a growing chance of becoming a sudden casualty in a new and unpredictable conflict.
The Bush administration struggled to find a coherent response to these unexpected developments. When reporters first asked Rumsfeld about the looting, he was breezily dismissive. “Stuff happens!” he replied, adding “it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” but “they’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things.” What was certainly not happening, Rumsfeld insisted throughout the early summer, was a full-blown insurgency. In mid-June he blamed the violence on “pockets of dead-enders” left over from the invasion. His commanders, meanwhile, insisted that a deployment of four thousand U.S. soldiers in central Iraq “would curb the threat,” adding that the violence was not a sign that they now faced organized nationwide resistance.
But the violence continued to escalate. In June U.S. forces initiated roughly half of the thirty-five daily incidents. On a single day in August, by contrast, insurgents were responsible for upwards of 80 percent of incidents. As a result American losses rose dramatically, hitting thirty-three in October and rising to sixty-eight in November. On November 3 alone, seventeen Americans were killed, sixteen of them in a Chinook helicopter shot down by insurgents. The next day, even relatively staid newspapers like USA Today ran with alarming banner headlines, pronouncing: violence in iraq reaches new level.
Just like Lyndon B. Johnson thirty-eight years earlier, Bush was at his Texas ranch as this major spate of new casualties was announced. Whereas Johnson had spoken publicly about the pain he felt at every new death in Vietnam, Bush was deeply reluctant to embrace, or even talk about, the casualty issue. Determined not to engage in public displays of grief, he initially rejected any suggestion that he appear at funerals or memorial services. He even waited two days before making a statement on the Chinook loss.
To the twenty-four-hour cable news channels that lived off breaking news, this time lag seemed an eternity. Even to more traditionally minded journalists, Bush’s reluctance to connect himself openly with a tragic event marked a clear break from the past. For at least a generation the sitting president had acted as mourner in chief. In 1965 Johnson had led the way, telling the public of his pain at the Ia Drang losses. Nixon had then spoken frequently about recent losses, albeit tinged with a partisan desire to attack the Democrats and justify his own policies. Then after the Vietnam War the president’s public grieving role had become fully established. As reporters now hastened to remind Bush:
President Jimmy Carter attended ceremonies for troops killed in Pakistan, Egypt and the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran. President Ronald Reagan participated in many memorable ceremonies, including a service at Camp Lejeune in 1983 for 241 Marines killed in Beirut. Among several events at military bases, he went to Andrews in 1985 to pin Purple Hearts to the caskets of marines killed in San Salvador, and, at Mayport Naval Station in Florida in 1987, he eulogized those killed aboard the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf. In the next decade Clinton had taken public mourning to a new level. Always adept at publicly empathizing with victims, Clinton had attended a number of military funerals, including a service for seventeen soldiers killed by Al Qaeda on the USS Cole.
Bush, however, was determined to be different. With the exception of Reagan, he found these past precedents unappealing. Clinton was always a particular Bush bête noire; and, as one of his aides revealed, Bush had long been offended by what he saw as Clinton’s “exploitation of private grief for political gain.” Johnson’s example was even more troubling. Bush’s aides were acutely aware of the obvious parallel of two Texan presidents presiding over bloody insurgency wars. Behind closed doors Bush also craved detailed information on losses in a way that rekindled ominous memories of Johnson’s obsession with body counts. Ever eager to avoid a PR disaster, Bush advisers were highly sensitive about what they told the media. “Not once in this building have we ever discussed the number,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs maintained on one occasion, under intense questioning from a skeptical reporter. Bush, agreed another official, had never “become hostage to daily body counts.”
As reporters continued to probe Bush about this tendency to shy away from casualties, they received various responses. The president simply lacked the time to attend all the military funerals, declared one White House official. He was also wanted to let grieving families “have their privacy,” insisted another. Nor, averred a third, did he think it fair to single out specific deaths. As Bush’s communications director explained, “He never wants to elevate or diminish one sacrifice made over another.”
To the skeptics, however, Bush’s motives were much more brazenly political. A presidential election was just a year away. The media was already focusing intensively on casualties in the unexpected guerilla war, and pollsters were increasingly making the disturbing connection between mounting losses and Bush’s approval ratings. As early as July 2003 opinion polls started to record that a majority of Americans thought the level of casualties was “unacceptable”—a figure that rose at precisely the same time that Bush’s personal approval ratings began to dip alarmingly.
Against this domestic backdrop, Bush had an obvious incentive not to dramatize the growing death toll. Faced with domestic criticism over his tardy response to the Chinook downing, he did fly to Fort Carson, Colorado, at the end of November where four of sixteen dead soldiers had been based. In a tearful two-hour meeting with relatives, he offered condolences and comfort. But this visit proved an exception rather than the rule. For the most part Bush focused on doing nothing to dramatize the casualty issue. Most controversially he continued to uphold the ban, introduced by his father in the Persian Gulf War, on media coverage of the return of flag-draped coffins. “There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [DE] base, to include interim stops,” the Bush administration insisted.
If the past was any guide, Bush’s effort to defuse the casualty issue was unlikely to succeed. In earlier wars similar PR strategies had simply created an information vacuum, which was filled by partisan politicians and speculating reporters. This time, as well as adding uncontrolled bloggers to the equation, these competing voices in the polity had clear reasons to develop their own casualty narrative.
Their most powerful motive was a growing skepticism about the Bush administration’s entire case for war. Before the invasion, the unifying threat in Bush’s propaganda had been that Saddam’s WMD posed a clear and present danger to the United States. “It was the one justification for war on which everyone could agree,” according to the historian Susan Brewer. It was also the justification that did most to rally overwhelming popular support for the war. Unfortunately for Bush, it proved glaringly erroneous. Although the administration sent teams of WMD hunters into Iraq, weapons were never found. Saddam had sustained the illusion of still having stockpiles partly because he thought this would instill fear in his enemies in the region and partly because believed he believed the Americans would never invade. By January 2004 David Kay, the head of the WMD-hunting operation, publicly admitted failure. “We were almost all wrong,” he conceded to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
This stunning admission had a clear, if complex, impact on the casualty debate. At the beginning of the war, some relatives of the fallen had told reporters that the discovery of chemical and biological weapons would help them make sense of their loss. If they were not found, warned Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster, Bush was in for a hard time. “The American tolerance for casualties,” Rosner told the New York Times in April, “is going to change a whole lot depending on whether you find a weapon of mass destruction.”
A year later this appeared, at first glance, to be a prescient prediction. As casualty totals increased, while the WMD proved nonexistent, the public mood appeared to be shifting. Only a third of Americans, for instance, thought that the level of casualties was acceptable. Although Saddam’s capture at the end of 2003 fulfilled one war aim, the number thinking Iraq was a mistake continued to rise, as did the percentage who no longer thought the war worth fighting. And yet, domestic support did not collapse entirely. Most notably the public’s tolerance for casualties remained fairly robust. According to a specific series of polls undertaken on the subject, the number stating they would not tolerate more than a thousand casualties only jumped from 24 to 32 percent during the period when the administration admitted there were no WMDs. During the winter of 2003/4, moreover, overall support for the war continued to hover just above the significant 50 percent threshold.
The failure to find WMD, though not directly undermining popular support for the war, did exert a clear influence over the elite discourse. In particular it provided the war’s critics with an obvious new rallying cry. Back in 1952 opponents of Korea had decried Truman’s “die for a tie” stalemate war. Now this slogan was revamped into the catchy “die for a lie” sound bite, and reiterated by politicians, protesters, and bloggers. Perhaps its most telling use came on the anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf incident, which Johnson had used as legal cover to escalate the Vietnam War. Forty years later antiwar protesters gathered next to the USS Admiral Turner Joy, one of the ships that had been involved in the incident and was now docked permanently at Bremerton, Washington. On their placards was the barbed question: “How do you ask a soldier to be the last to die for a lie?”
During the Vietnam War, of course, the murky nature of the Tonkin incident had generated suspicions of a “credibility gap” between Johnson’s public statements and the reality on the ground. In the wake of the failure to locate WMD, Bush faced a similar problem. Like Johnson, moreover, he then widened the credibility gap by making constant claims about progress in Iraq, which jarred with repeated media stories of violent incidents and mounting casualties. Some experts were quick to note the similarity. As early as November 2003, for example, Ernest May, the influential Harvard historian, declared ominously that “the gap between official assessments of the situation and reports from the ground is ‘eerily reminiscent’ of the Vietnam era.”
Just like in the 1960s, these “credibility gap” claims threatened to have a deeply corrosive impact on presidential leadership. Ever since Bush’s ill-fated decision to declare victory on May 1, the media had been gifted the opening to frame every casualty story around the same refrain: How many Americans had died “since the president declared major operations were over?” Such an opening hardly inspired confidence in Bush’s leadership, especially when the media reported in late October 2003 that the “postwar GI death toll” now exceeded the wartime total. As skepticism grew, the media predictably began to shine its investigative spotlight on a whole range of government pronouncements.
It soon emerged, for instance, that Jessica Lynch had not been captured during a last-ditch Rambo-style shoot-out, as official spokesmen suggested and the media avidly reported. The reality was much more prosaic. According to the Washington Post, which had run one of the most influential early stories, “Lynch tried to fire her weapon, but it jammed. . . . She did not kill any Iraqis. She was neither shot nor stabbed.” In the aftermath of this effective retraction, other media organizations began to ask, as Jim Lehrer did on his NewsHour, “whether the American media too willingly accepted the story of the rescue of Jessica Lynch as presented by the Pentagon.”
This was not the last time that media mistrust would interact with a celebrity casualty story. A year later, when the football star Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, the Pentagon initially tried to conceal that he had been a victim of friendly fire. It was a cover-up that failed disastrously, magnifying distrust in official statements and leading ultimately to a House of Representatives investigation into why the Defense Department had sought to mislead the public about both Tillman and Lynch.
Prompted by both incidents, a number of families came forward “to recount similar experiences in which the Pentagon provided misleading information about a battlefield casualty.” As the inquest dragged on, some media voices charged that the Tillman case had disturbing echoes in how Johnson and Nixon, “drunk with power,” had repeatedly lied to the American people. Others concentrated on the Lynch episode, arguing that it raised equally profound questions about the modern personality-obsessed media culture that the Pentagon had manipulated so easily. In this view, rather than being a real hero distinguished by achievement, Lynch was the archetypal celebrity-hero created by an unholy military-media alliance. “Jessica Lynch is but a puppet,” opined Mark Morford, a columnist and culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, “a toy, a convenient TV-ready canvass [sic] onto which we can project our impotent myths of patriotism and war, spit forth by the BushCo military machine to ease America’s pain, to assuage the increasingly nagging fear that we have committed this horrible thing, this irreversible atrocity.”
While Morford’s trenchant scorn for the official line had little resonance outside liberal circles, the growing mood of distrust that it fed into did present Democrats with an obvious opportunity. At the very least those who had always opposed the invasion felt vindicated. Ted Kennedy, who had caused Nixon so much anxiety over the Hamburger Hill casualties in 1969, was now a similar thorn in Bush’s side. In October 2002 Kennedy had voted against the congressional resolution for war on the grounds that Bush had neither made a “convincing case that we face such an imminent threat” nor had “laid out the cost in blood and treasure for this operation.” Now he branded the Iraq War “an unnecessary war, based on unreliable and inaccurate intelligence,” which “has brought new dangers, imposed new costs, and taken more and more American lives each week.”
As casualties mounted over the winter of 2003/4, those Democrats racing for their party’s presidential nomination intensified this partisan assault. Some targeted Bush’s reluctance to act as mourner in chief, depicting him as “isolated from the real pain of war.” Others invoked casualties to highlight what they dubbed the war’s mismanagement. In an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe, Wesley Clark began with the tragic story of Sgt. Ernest Bucklew—one of the sixteen killed in the downed Chinook, who had been heading home to attend his mother’s funeral—to call for a new plan to end the Iraq War.
In the spring, as the situation in Iraq continued to worsen, this line of attack seemed likely to gain more traction. April was a particularly bloody month. Whereas U.S. forces had normally faced about two hundred incidents a week, this figure jumped to 370 one week, followed by 600 the next. The city of Fallujah became the central flashpoint. More aggressive patrolling by the marine corps, which had just taken over responsibility for the city, resulted in a series of intense firefights, but the most explosive episode came when four American contractors were ambushed by insurgents. Dragged from their cars, they were beaten and dismembered, before their blackened corpses were left hanging from a bridge. As Peter Jennings began on that evening’s ABC news, “[T]he cameras were there for the gruesome aftermath.” The pictures they recorded, he added, were “pretty repugnant, but they are the reality of war.”
On many occasions such contractors’ deaths remained effectively hidden from public view. As private employees, they certainly did not appear in official casualty statistics. This time, however, the public was appalled. According to one survey, the footage of their corpses was so gruesomely eye-catching that more than 80 percent had “seen or heard something about the attacks.” Democrats now glimpsed an opportunity. While leading congressional critics branded Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam,” John Kerry, the Democrats’ presumed presidential nominee, declared that Bush’s handling of Iraq was both “inept” and a “mess.”
Yet the Fallujah incident would soon reveal, in microcosm, all the problems Kerry would face trying to turn this new spate of Iraq violence into a winning electoral message. Part of the problem stemmed from the reckless and objectionable comments of some of his liberal allies. Soon after the networks had aired gruesome footage of the dead contractors, the Daily Kos, a progressive political blog, published a comment by Markos Moulitsas, its founder. “I feel nothing over the death of merceneries [sic],” Moulitsas provocatively wrote. “They aren’t in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them.” Kerry was immediately forced on the defensive. In the next few days, instead of sharpening his political attack on the war, he was forced to disavow these comments as “unacceptable” before removing a link to them from his campaign website.
In the late summer Kerry was again was thrown off balance, this time by some of his former Vietnam military comrades. These men, angered by Kerry’s role in the Vietnam antiwar movement during the early 1970s, produced contentious TV ads and a video “documentary” that questioned both Kerry’s patriotism and the incident that won him a third Purple Heart.
Kerry struggled to find an effective retort. By mid-September even Democratic consultants admitted that he “had been too slow to respond to Republican attacks on his military record.” To make matters worse, when Kerry tried to shift the focus back to Iraq, he was easily caricatured as lacking consistency. Why, Republicans asked, had he voted against the first Iraq War in 1991 but for the second one in 2003? Was his current criticism of Bush’s handling of the conflict just another example of his muddle-headed opportunism? If Kerry had been president, Cheney declared, Saddam would not only still be in power, he would still be in control of Kuwait. Was this the man to be president at such a dangerous moment?
Although Kerry tried to hit back hard, his campaign statements often lacked focus and fire. The first presidential debate was particularly telling. Held just after the American death toll had passed the landmark one-thousand threshold, it should have presented Kerry with a prime opportunity, especially when Lehrer, the impartial moderator, asked both candidates whether the war had been worth such a cost. But Kerry muffed his lines. While Bush spoke movingly of meeting with widows who understood the need to remove Saddam, Kerry said somewhat cryptically that Lehrer’s question was a timely reminder that Americans should never confuse war “with the warriors.” He then went on to speak stolidly of his plan to end the fighting by holding a summit meeting and bringing in the UN.
For Democrats it was all very frustrating. The public clearly distrusted Bush on Iraq. In mid-September about 80 percent said he was either “hiding something” or “mostly lying” about the war. A plurality also said that the fighting had “produced more casualties than originally expected.” And still the death toll continued to rise. The fighting, which spread from Fallujah during the spring, remained intense in the city itself. Although the marines launched a major campaign, this merely resulted in a costly stalemate on the ground. In April alone, 126 Americans were KIA, making it the bloodiest month of the war.
For Bush, however, the sheer size of this mess contained at least one advantage. As the security situation deteriorated, American correspondents found it almost impossible to cover the war. “It was journalism under siege,” reported one correspondent, “with hotels being mortared and every trip out of them risky, made in armored SUVs and wearing body armor.” As the country descended into chaos, ambushes and kidnappings became depressingly common, and many correspondents stopped making even these heavily chaperoned trips. “The whole world of foreign correspondence changed,” observed the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief. “We started out like other reporters—go out, report, do a day trip, come back, write the story. By the end, I wasn’t going anywhere much.”
With “cowed reporters” often failing to depict the ugly reality of events on the ground, Bush’s constant claims of progress started to stick. Even at the beginning of the year popular support, though dipping, had remained relatively robust. It continued to edge downward during the spring, with the balance between those Americans approving and disapproving hitting a low of 40:58 in May. But the decision to hand over power to an Iraqi government a month later halted the trend. In July this ratio then increased to 45:53, before nudging up to 47:50 just before the election. With the country about to vote, Bush also led Kerry on the question of who would best deal with an international crisis and who could best protect the homeland from another terrorist attack.
As reporters went out into the American heartland to interview friends and relatives of the fallen, they discovered similar pattern. “I don’t think I like what John Kerry has to say,” said the best friend of a Nebraska corporal recently killed in Iraq. In fact, throughout this admittedly Republican-leaning Nebraska neighborhood, the journalist found that most people did not see the corporal’s “death through the prism of politics.” “I sense no bitterness or contrition whatsoever,” observed another inhabitant of this small town. “I think the overall feeling is that we’re grateful he died the way he did—serving his country.”
Excerpted from “When Soldiers Fall: How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan” by Steven Casey. Copyright © 2014 by Steven Casey. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.