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Pentagon's quietest calculation: the casualty count

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But some military officers worry that Americans may come to expect "sterile warfare," as one Army officer wounded during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada puts it. And the trend has come both to reflect and to affect US military doctrine - particularly with an all-volunteer force "that at times seems to have signed up for the duration of the peace," as another source half-jests. As a result, says recently retired Army Col. Scott Snook, a "very risk-averse approach" has developed within the armed forces.

"The worst thing you can do over there is screw up and lose a soldier wounded or killed," says Dr. Snook, a West Point graduate who spent 22 years as a combat engineer and now teaches at the Harvard Business School. "There's no upside, so there's only downside. It limits the military as a foreign-policy vehicle, as a foreign-policy weapon."

In part, this reflects the doctrine laid down by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and then by Colin Powell when he was a four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War.

In essence, this means the use of overwhelming force as well as a clear end result to any fighting. In the wake of the 1983 attack on US Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing facility in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, it also came to include what some critics say is an over-emphasis on "force protection" - sheltering US troops from possible attack at nearly all costs.

Defense analyst Jeffrey Record of the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy in Atlanta calls this "a profound aversion, bordering on the phobic."

"This dread of casualties is pronounced among the country's political and military leadership, and in the war over Kosovo it produced the elevation of force protection above mission accomplishment," Dr. Record writes in a recent issue of Parameters, a publication of the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "Indeed, the available evidence identifies a significant disparity in casualty tolerance between the leadership and the average citizen, with the latter more willing to accept combat losses - depending on the circumstances."

Intangible factors
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