WASHINGTON — In the climactic, four-week Battle of the Bulge in World War II, 19,000 Americans were killed. On a single day, Sept. 17, 1862, at least 3,650 Confederate and Union soldiers died in the Battle of Antietam. At the height of the Vietnam War, roughly 200 Americans were killed each week.
In the first seven days of the war in Iraq, two dozen Americans have died.
Modest as the latest losses are by historical standards of combat, they have already prompted sharp shifts in public perceptions about how well the campaign against Saddam Hussein is going, though they have not, according to polls so far, reduced overall support for the war. But as coalition forces face unexpected complexities on their march to Baghdad, the Bush administration faces the political challenge of preparing a public lulled by the relatively low losses in Afghanistan and the first Persian Gulf War for a conflict that could be costlier than some optimists predicted.
What level of casualties does the White House think the American public will tolerate?
"I'm not going there, because I don't know," the White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, said Wednesday, in a sign of the sensitivity of the issue.
The first Persian Gulf War clearly influenced public views about probable casualties in this conflict. In Gallup polls conducted in 1991, 30 percent of the public expected casualties of several thousand, while one in 10 expected fewer than 100 troops would be killed and wounded. In Gallup surveys taken this month, just 5 percent of respondents expected casualties of several thousand, while four in 10 expected less than 100 American casualties.
After the 1991 war, the Pentagon acknowledged that it had anticipated upwards of 10,000 allied casualties. (In fact, there were just over 600 American casualties, 146 killed in action and 467 wounded). The government's official post-mortem on the war also disclosed that its commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., had been given, among his "operational imperatives," the order to "accept losses no greater than the equivalent of three companies per coalition brigade."
That would have translated to something like 10 percent of the roughly 100,000 allied ground troops in the field. This time, senior White House and Pentagon officials insist that there has been no discussion of similar limits.
"Absolutely not," said the press secretary, Ari Fleischer. "Absolutely not. The president looks at this knowing that when the commander-in-chief talks about the use of force, the American people understand that it may entail the sacrifices he has spoken of. And the president also views this in the post 9/11 context, in which failure to act could lead to the taking of even more lives."
A Pentagon official added: "There's no number, and we don't work with numbers." On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said: "The fact of the matter is we have said repeatedly we can't say how long it will last. We do not know. It is not knowable."
Still, there are hints. In the event of urban combat in Baghdad, for example, Pentagon planners have spoken of using advanced techniques to reduce American casualties, combined killed and wounded, to perhaps 10 percent per unit.
Attuned to the concern about casualties, the Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, in her briefing Wednesday responded to suggestions that officials had been slow to provide casualty figures by saying they were releasing them as quickly as possible, after next of kin could be notified. "It will never be as fast as some people like; it will never be as complete as some people like," she said.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said: "If the numbers stay in the ballpark of the first Gulf War, I think the public would accept it and see removal of Saddam Hussein as victory. As the numbers get much higher than that, then you really have to demonstrate success in other ways, by showing that the combination of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus other efforts, have forestalled or reduced terrorist attacks, for example."
Robert Teeter, the veteran Republican pollster who worked for the first President Bush, said that so far "there's been a lot of 'uh-oh, what if,"' but no sign that broad public support for the war is slipping. "I think a lot of this is truly a Beltway phenomenon," he added, of the disquiet, noting that in a poll he did during Operation Desert Storm, 21 percent of respondents said that the Iraqi military force had turned out to be tougher than expected, compared to 10 percent now.
"It seems to me that there is some public understanding as to what war really is." Teeter said.
Robert F. Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia and an Army veteran of two tours in Vietnam, put it this way: "My own sense is that public support will decline a bit as people see firsthand how horrible war is, and it's good that they should. But I think they are also seeing the kind of people we are fighting against, the use of civilians as shields, and learning more about Saddam. And unless there's some horrible military blunder, I would expect support to endure long enough to get this done."
Experts on war and public opinion say there is no simple rule of thumb for determining when casualties prompt public reassessment of support for war, nothing comparable to the maxim that a politician facing re-election with approval ratings below 50 percent is in trouble. Instead, they say, a wide range of factors come into play.
Eric V. Larson, an analyst at the RAND Corp., said history suggests that the public's tolerance for casualties is higher than popular perception would have it. But, he said, such tolerance depends on the level of overall public support for war aims, together with the prospects for success and a consensus among political leaders.
By those standards, Larson said, tolerance of casualties for the war in Iraq "seems to be quite a bit more robust than for any of the peacekeeping operations of the '90s, like Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and the latter stages of Somalia; perhaps not as robust at in Afghanistan, perhaps not as robust as World War II, but relatively very high."
Allan J. Lichtman, a historian at American University here, said Bush had so far succeeded in persuading the public that this is a war for Americans' safety, "and to the extent that people still believe that, then I think the tolerance for casualties will be high. How high is hard to say."
"But," he added, "to the extent that belief in that wavers and this becomes less like World War II and more like Somalia, then in fact tolerance of casualties will sharply decline. I think they've done a very bad job of selling the sacrifices of this war. The president has talked in bland terms about it perhaps being longer and more costly, but he's never really issued a clarion call for sacrifice on the part of the American people."
Stanley A. Renshon, a professor of political science at the City University of New York and author of "The Political Psychology of the Gulf War," said that on one level, reports from the hundreds of journalists embedded with frontline units are bringing the travails of war home in unsettling ways.
"But it also gives people a sense of the difficulties involved, and allows the Bush administration to make the argument 'This isn't so easy,"' he said. " I think that's possibly going to be a sobering and stiffening thing for public opinion."