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What Bob Gates' memoir reveals about battlefield casualties

What Bob Gates' memoir reveals about battlefield casualties
Published 14 Jan 2014 

Steve Casey's new book When Soldiers Fall: How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan has just been published by Oxford University Press.

Even before its official publication, Bob Gates' memoir, Duty, had sparked enormous controversy, with headlines advertising the former defense secretary's spiky claims about the president's 'political' opposition to the Iraq surge and the Vice President Biden's (lack of) judgement. 

Beneath these attention-grabbing headlines, Gates makes some equally eye catching revelations about his attitude toward combat casualties. As well as divulging his plan to be buried in Arlington Cemetery next to many of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates suggests that casualties might have distorted his decision making on some issues during these wars. According to the New York Times, Gates

...describes how he came to feel "an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility" for the troops he ordered into combat, which left him misty-eyed when discussing their sacrifices — and perhaps clouded his judgment when cold hearted national security interests were at stake.

This intriguing revelation raises a deeper question: does an overpowering sense of responsibility for the inevitable casualties of war cloud  (or distort ) decision-makers' judgement? Does it make them act in an emotional way contrary to the hard-headed requirements of national interest?

This point is, at the very least, highly debatable. In 'wars of choice' (those not essential to safeguard the nation's security), decision-makers surely need to weigh the human cost of using of force, eliminating all policy alternatives before putting American soldiers in harm's way. The same is also true when contemplating when, where, and how to engage the enemy in battle. This is not simply a matter of compassion for the troops and their families. It is also good politics, since popular support for war tends to dip as casualties rise, especially if the reason for war is questionable in the first place.

Even in wars of necessity, where the nation is under direct threat, these considerations cannot be ignored. [fold]

No one was more qualified to consider the ramifications of casualties than George Marshall, the army chief of staff during World War II, that most necessary of all wars. As US troops took the war to Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, Marshall made sure that his president received graphic information about American losses every day or so. 'I tried to keep before him all the time the casualty results,' Marshall recalled later, 'because you get hardened to these things and you have to be very careful to keep them always in the forefront of your mind.'

Indeed. Roosevelt never became 'hardened' to the human cost of his war. He only sought to declare war after the US had been attacked, a prudent move that helped ensure public support until the bitter end. Thereafter, he often inclined toward 'technowar,' relying on US technology in the hope of keeping the American death toll down.

This wasn't misty eyed sentimentality. It was savvy war-making, which helped to ensure that World War II remains known, to this day, as 'the good war'. It is logic that should be remembered whenever decision-makers contemplate putting American troops in harm's way.

Photo by Flickr user U.S. Army.

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