Courtesy Reuters

How Many Casualties Will Americans Tolerate?



In "The Iraq Syndrome" (November/December 2005), John Mueller argues that public support for the American wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq can be explained with "a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases." He goes on to say that support for the Iraq war has dropped so fast that it makes sense to talk about an "Iraq syndrome," a casualty-induced aversion to the future use of force by the United States.

Mueller's landmark contributions to the study of public opinion and war have rightly earned him much respect and inspired a large portion of the scholarly agenda taken up by me and my research partner, Peter Feaver. In this essay, however, he is only partially correct. The public is, as he notes, sensitive to casualties: casualties are the cost of war, and the public would prefer the same outcome (victory) at lower cost (fewer casualties). But when he steps from there to casualty-phobia -- a sensitivity to casualties so acute that it paralyzes policymakers -- Mueller goes far beyond his limited data and must ignore extensive evidence that runs counter to his theory. Even the limited data Mueller cites disprove his own central claim: that support drops steadily and inexorably with mounting casualties regardless of context. Along the way, Mueller grossly misstates the findings from my co-authored research and largely overlooks research by Richard Eichenberg, Bruce Jentleson, Steven Kull, Eric Larson, and others that adds more nuance to this picture.


Casualty sensitivity may be thought of as price sensitivity to the human cost of war. As with other forms of price sensitivity, some members of the public are more sensitive to casualties than others, and one person's sensitivity to casualties may vary over time.

In fact, the public's willingness to bear the human cost of war has varied substantially during different phases of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The key variable is the perceived likelihood that the mission

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