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Rebuilding Iraq

Casualty projections hinge on war strategy

By Robert Schlesinger, Globe Staff, 2/17/2003

W ASHINGTON - In the debate on whether to go to war against Iraq, estimates of likely casualties have been notably absent. Military and statistical analysts recall the dismal forecasting record in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and say the possible casualty toll in this war is even less predictable because there are so many more variables.

"Part of the reason people don't try to do this is, if you try to be accurate you end up being wrong, and if you try not to be wrong, then you end up with such a wide range that it ends up being useless," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution who is one of the few scholars making predictions.

O'Hanlon, using statistical models and lessons learned from the Gulf War, the US invasion of Panama, and US military experience in the Persian Gulf, estimates the probable number of US deaths at between 100 to 5,000, with from 500 to 30,000 US casualties overall including dead and wounded. His projection of Iraqi civilian and military deaths has an even wider spread, from 1,000 to 100,000.

Projections of potential casualties, both for coalition forces and Iraqis, inform the judgment of policy makers and ordinary citizens alike. In the post-Vietnam era, politicians and military planners have developed reputations for being casualty-averse, afraid the public would not support a war that would count American dead in the thousands. Yet few credible estimates are available to anticipate the likely consequences of the various military scenarios.

"Even if it is a wide range, it shows that there really are plausible ways in which you can get to a relatively good or relatively bloody outcome, and the plausibility of either of those can be established reasonably well," O'Hanlon said. "It changes the terms of the debate."

During the prelude to the Gulf War, a published statistical model foresaw between 4,000 and 16,000 coalition casualties (including both dead and wounded), while another predicted between 3,000 and 11,000, according to O'Hanlon. Published reports indicated that the Department of Defense expected 30,000 or more dead and wounded Americans in the battle. When the actual fighting was over, the United States and its allies had lost roughly 500 people (240 in combat), and had suffered approximately 1,500 casualties overall.

The imprecision of the 1991 predictions can be attributed to several factors, analysts said, including overestimation of Iraqi skill, uncertainty about how US equipment would measure up, and lack of knowledge of how US advantages like advanced technology and greater support structures -- intelligence, communications, maintenance, logistics -- would affect the battle.

A war against Iraq this year would bring variables on an entirely different scale, according to military specialists, making it hard to predict with any certainty the details of the outcome, though none of those specialists doubts the United States would triumph.

"The thing that's really difficult is we're clearly going to run a different kind of campaign," said Daniel Goure, a former Defense Department official currently with the Lexington Institute. "There's a whole new set of unknowables that actually are more complicating than last time."

The two biggest variables are Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi will to fight.

"Everybody I've talked to who is planning or getting ready to go is assuming that if this is a conventional conflict, US [and Iraqi] casualties will be quite light," said Loren B. Thompson, a professor in military strategy at Georgetown University who is also at the Lexington Institute. "But if Saddam [Hussein] uses weapons of mass destruction, all bets are off."

While it is widely assumed that Hussein would order the use of biological or chemical weapons if attacked, it is unclear whether his orders would be obeyed, and whether those weapons would prove effective against highly mobile allied troops equipped with protective gear. The swing could be orders of magnitude.

"When Hessians were standing in lines in red uniforms exposed to musket volleys, it may have been possible to do a fairly rigorous casualty assessment," Thompson said. "Even if we set aside the dynamism of combat, there are many other factors that we can't quantify right now. . . . It's really a kind of fool's chore to try to predict casualties."

The other huge variable is the level of resistance that US forces would meet in a war in Iraq. US military plans reportedly contemplate bypassing most of the regular Iraqi armed forces in the belief that as in the Gulf War, they will surrender in large numbers. Even if they do, the better-trained Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard might fight, on the theory that they would fear retribution from a post-Hussein Iraqi government.

"Clearly the big unknown is, `Will the Iraqis fight?' . . . up to and including, `Are there civilians armed who will defend Baghdad to the death?" Goure said. "You've got a really big swing there, much bigger than the last time."

Another muddying factor for prognosticators is the exact nature of US war plans: The strategy -- whether to attack Baghdad directly or surround it, whether to try to quickly seize and defend oil fields, the mix of air and ground forces, for example -- could also affect any analysis.

Advocates on both sides of the issue agree that trying to put a substantive number on casualties in a war in Iraq is perilous. There is a danger, some say, that those offering estimates could be taking dramatic license.

"Mostly people who have an agenda will step out on that limb because rather than seeking credibility, they're seeking to promote that agenda," said Danielle Pletka, a former staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee currently with the American Enterprise Institute who favors action against Iraq.

Former representative Tom Andrews, Democrat of Maine, who now heads Win Without War, an antiwar coalition, agreed that estimating casualties is problematic.

"It's impossible to know or project with all the unknowns," Andrews said. "What will be the combat within the urban areas? What kind of hand-to-hand combat? What about chemical and biological weapons?" (Neither Pletka nor Andrews was commenting directly on O'Hanlon's analysis.)

US officials have kept quiet about what kind of estimates the Pentagon may have generated internally. But there have been some signs of preparation.

For example, last week the Pentagon's Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia awarded a contract for 7,000 "human remains pouches" -- known more commonly as body bags. Those are in addition to an outstanding order for 8,890, said Frank Johnson, a spokesman for the center, who said the new orders were not prompted by specific circumstances.

"Right now what we're really doing is replenishing the stock," Johnson said. "But we are quite honestly, now with the global situation . . . starting to buy extras.

"The situation is, right now, that we're at very comfortable safety levels," said Johnson, noting that the department had bought extras after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that were not used. "These levels are a bit high."

The department keeps three kinds of body bags: the traditional version, of which they have roughly 34,000; a heavier olive-drab version capable of being hoisted out of rugged terrain by helicopter, of which they have 924, with another 750 on order; and a third, which Johnson described as "a very big leaf bag," used for collecting pieces when bodies are not intact. The department has 1,157 boxes of the third type of bag, with 50 in a box.

The department does not have a body bag designed for corpses contaminated by chemical or biological weapons, according to Tom Sidor, a contracting officer at the supply center.

The Defense Department reviewed its policy on disposition of remains and considered cremating contaminated corpses, but announced Thursday that the current policy -- to return remains to the United States as expeditiously as possible -- would remain in effect.

"Cases involving contaminated remains will be handled with the dignity and respect accorded to all remains and processed by mortuary and medical personnel consistent with applicable laws and procedures to ensure health and safety of the living," the department said in a statement.

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/17/2003.
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