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Pentagon's quietest calculation: the casualty count

War planners' estimate of battle losses may factor in an American expectation for 'sterile warfare.'

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Somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, war planners are searching for answers to the ultimate questions about armed conflict with Iraq: Will it be worth it? Even assuming Saddam Hussein is toppled, will the likely loss of US servicemen and women be "acceptable"?

If the last Gulf War is any guide, official estimates of US casualties vary widely. One scenario back then saw as many as 200,000 of the nearly 600,000 US forces in the region succumbing to biological attacks from Iraqi spray tanks. In the end, Pentagon planners set their best estimate of KIAs (those killed in action) at 18,000 - which turned out to be more than 100 times the actual losses.

Not surprisingly, officials today are closemouthed about the subject.

"The Pentagon rarely will discuss or even admit to doing casualty estimates," says Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. "That's because serious assessments would necessarily consider a high and low range, which would tend to discourage public support for the war."

But there's little doubt that such estimates are being developed, according to those who have been part of such planning, particularly since this war - if it happens - is seen by many as finishing the job begun 12 years ago.

"In this situation - going deep into Iraq, planning to stay a long time, perhaps even fighting inside Baghdad - casualty estimates have been at the heart of the planning," says a retired military officer who played a key Pentagon role in preparation for the Gulf War. "I'd expect that they've chosen a timeline and attack plan specifically shaped by these kinds of risk assessments."

Since the Vietnam War, which saw more than 58,000 US troops killed, Americans have come to expect relatively few casualties when they go into combat.

Estimates vs. actual toll

Before the Gulf War in 1991, upwards of 20,000 body bags were shipped to the region in preparation for the fighting. Yet when Iraqi forces had been destroyed or routed just four days into the ground war, 147 Americans had been killed in combat. Since then, there have been no losses to hostile action in the Balkans, and US combat deaths in Afghanistan total 26 so far.

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