By Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 302. ISBN 978-0-19-539096-4.
Kriner and Shen here present the results of six years of study of local
variations in casualties of the wars fought by the United States during the last
seventy-five years (World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the War
in Iraq). In their opening chapter, they discuss the main issues they examined
and the significant conclusions drawn from the detailed statistical analyses
contained in their other eight chapters.
At the start, they stress the importance of the human element in reckoning
the costs of war, going back another seventy-five years to the Civil War to
remind us that Abraham Lincoln "famously described the sacrifice of fallen
soldiers as 'the last full measure of devotion' as he sought to reassure a
war-ravaged nation that the principles for which its men fought and died
justified their sacrifice" (3). Lincoln was speaking to those most affected by
the deaths of the fallen—the members of their home communities and their
brothers in arms. As Walt Whitman observed in his stark depiction of Civil War
casualties, "I Saw the Vision of Armies," "The living remain'd and suffer'd—the
mother suffer'd,/ And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer'd,/
And the armies that remained suffer'd."
Wartime casualties affect both soldiers in the field who have to be convinced
to go on fighting and citizens on the home front whose attitudes influence
political representatives and military leaders. This gives casualties their
critical importance and explains why "scholars in various disciplines have long
endeavored to understand how combat deaths shape public opinion, political
outcomes and policymaking" (3).
Reactions to wartime casualties vary from the noble to the cynical. Kriner
and Shen note that Pericles in his funeral oration at the outset (winter 431/430
BCE) of the Peloponnesian War, as reported by the Athenian general and historian
Thucydides, "exhorted his fellow citizens to have more children, in part because
he believed that only those with a direct stake in the outcome of military
affairs can craft the wisest policy course" (4). The lives of soldiers are to be
put at risk and expended wisely. And leaders of successful nations need a ready
supply of men willing to face the dangers of war. The authors further observe
that General and President George Washington "openly embraced [the] principle of
shared sacrifice, … proclaim[ing] the ideal that every citizen who enjoys the
rights and privileges of citizenship 'owes not only a portion of his property,
but even of his personal service to the defense of it'" (4).
Anyone familiar with the literature and history of warfare knows that cynical
views of casualties traditionally come from those who bear or have borne the
heaviest burdens. In Aristophanes's scathing play The Acharnians (425
BCE), the Athenians living in Acharnae, the district most thoroughly ravaged
by the Spartan forces during the opening years of the Peloponnesian War, are the
harshest critics of their leaders and the strongest advocates of peace.
World War II veterans like Paul Fussell (European Theater) and James Jones
(Pacific Theater) express strong and cynical criticisms in their non-fiction and
fiction even about the war most Americans still see as their one clearly "good" or
at least necessary war. Their criticisms are based on the inequality of
suffering and the hollowness of high ideals when one's own life and those of
one's fellow soldiers are at stake.
Corporal Fife in Jones's classic The Thin Red Line flatly declares
that war is all about property. His corollary is that the lives of the
relatively small percentage of soldiers who do the actual fighting have little
value when it comes to making decisions about the costs of war fought on such
Fussell carried deep resentments about the use of average GIs in the fighting
after D-Day: "I'd like to recommend the retention of and familiarity with the
first few minutes of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan depicting the
landing horrors. Then I'd suggest separating them to constitute a short subject,
titled Omaha Βeach: Aren't You Glad You Weren't There? Which could mean,
'Aren't you glad you weren't a conscripted working-class or high school boy in
1944?' The rest of the Spielberg film I'd consign to the purgatory where boys'
bad adventure films end up."
The great achievement of The Casualty Gap is to clarify how pervasive
such responses are throughout the American population and how they reflect the
degree to which the young men and women of their communities are placed in
danger of being killed in combat. Critical variables include income level,
education, race and ethnicity, prevailing political affiliation, employment
opportunities, and even regional histories. For example, Kriner and Shen argue
convincingly that the deep South, with its cultural memory of the nobility of
the devastating loss of lives during the Civil War, is less prone than other
parts of the country to turn against an ongoing war because of high local
The "casualty gap" refers to the existence of much higher casualty rates in
some communities and social classes than in others, for identifiable reasons
that are not random. The authors first tested in 2007 (with a similar follow-up
in 2009) a nationally representative group of more than a thousand Americans to
see whether direct knowledge of a casualty gap affected their political views
about going to war.
The test group comprised three sub-groups. All participants were told how
many casualties the United States had suffered in Iraq. They were then told to
"imagine for a moment that a future president decided to send military troops to
halt Iran's nuclear program and stop the infiltration of Iranian-backed forces
into Iraq" and asked "what would be the highest number of American military
deaths that would be acceptable to achieve this goal?" (98). The control group
was told nothing else. The second group was told that all American communities,
rich and poor, had experienced equal casualty rates (Washington's ideal of
shared sacrifice). The third group was told that poor communities had suffered
significantly higher casualty rates than rich ones.
The group that had been told about a casualty gap between rich and poor
communities proposed casualty figures 40 percent lower than the control group.
The group that had been told that a shared sacrifice scenario prevailed among
all communities accepted a higher number of deaths than respondents in the
control group. Clearly, Americans believe wars should involve equally shared
sacrifice. But no American war has.
Kriner and Shen also lay out the results of multiple empirical analyses,
often quite ingenious, of data from the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq wars. They
convincingly show that citizens in communities with higher casualty rates "hold
systematically different opinions and exhibit different political behaviors than
their peers from communities more shielded from the human costs of war" (6). One
clear result is that citizens from high-casualty communities lose both
confidence in government and interest in the political process. Ironically then,
"levels of civic and political engagement are depressed, and a feedback loop
emerges: the populations with the most to lose in war become those communities
with the least to say to their elected officials" (7). No wonder those in power
favor an all-volunteer army.
If casualty gaps are a fact of American war, why, Kriner and Shen ask, are
they peripheral to public, political, and academic discourse? One reason may be
strategic: accurate and timely dissemination of casualty data can have an impact
upon both the general public and the enemy.
One major asset of this statistically oriented study is its comprehensive
bibliography. For example, the authors cite a two-part article in which
historian Alfred Vagts carefully analyzes casualty statistics for World Wars I
and II. Like the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan, this
sobering study should be a mandatory assignment for anyone thinking about going
to war, in the literal or metaphorical sense. In passing, Vagts notes that after
the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE the Spartans kept their exact losses secret
by picking up their war dead at the same time as their allies. Like the
Athenians, however, they could not and did not hide from their own civilian
population the numbers and identities of their dead. By contrast, the Nazi
regime in Germany stopped reporting casualty data as the figures mounted after
The United States by policy provided casualty data, particularly in wars
(World War II, Korea, and Vietnam) where some claim could made to a fair
distribution of the burden of actual combat. During the Iraq War, however,
members of Congress noted by 2005 that the government was not providing an
accurate accounting of non-fatal casualties and cases of post-traumatic stress.
As is well known, in 1991, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney instituted a
ban on media coverage of the honor ceremonies, including the draping of coffins
with the American flag, that marked the return of military casualties from
abroad. The prohibition was continued by the George W. Bush administration
despite a 2003 national poll showing that 62 percent of Americans favored such
coverage while only 27 percent opposed it. When White House spokesperson Trent
Duffy cited concern for the privacy of the soldiers' families, US representative
Jim McDermott replied that the policy was designed "to keep the country from
facing the reality of war" (10). (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the
ban on 26 February 2009.)
Why do casualty gaps exist? Kriner and Shen prove that in all four of the
surveyed wars disparities stemmed from the processes of selection into the
military and the occupational assignment mechanisms that place some recruits
more than others in positions of high combat exposure. Having ascertained the
nature and degree of casualty gaps for each war, the authors turn to the impact
of the gaps on public opinion and political behaviors. The deaths of soldiers
within communities have effects through personal connection with the dead
soldiers or their families; the cues about attitudes, behaviors, and values that
elites put forward; and the way casualties are reported in the local media.
Kriner and Shen astutely deploy their data to foreground the significance of
eight parameters: (1-2) income and education; (3) unemployment; (4) race; (5)
rural farm population; (6) political partisanship; (7-8) geographic region and
age of population within regions.
Income was a significant factor in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, with
differentials of casualty rates between the top and bottom income groups of 10
percent in Vietnam and Korea and 15 percent in Iraq. For education, the
differentials are 9 percent, 13 percent and 18 percent respectively. The income
differential in terms of hard dollars adjusted to the year 2000 between
communities with casualty rates in the top 25% and all other communities
aggregated is $5,500 for Korea, $8,200 for Vietnam, and $13,200 for Iraq. The
education differential for Iraq is almost criminal: "The communities that have
suffered the highest casualty rates in the Iraq War possess levels of college
educational attainment that are almost 40 percent lower, on average, than those
of communities that have not yet suffered a casualty" (31).
There are some surprises. It is well known that Martin Luther King, Jr. took
up the statistical information that African Americans were suffering casualties
in Vietnam 5 percent higher than their numbers in the army and 7 percent higher
than their numbers in the overall population: Americans were "sending their
[African Americans'] sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to
die in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the
population" (24). These real disparities are "primarily the result of African
Americans' lower socioeconomic status.... [T]he models show that poor white
communities suffered casualty rates even higher than those suffered by
communities with larger black populations and identical socioeconomic
characteristics" (38). In other words, during the Vietnam War, we readily sent
the children of the poor off to fight and die regardless of their skin color.
When has it not been so? The authors quote a directive from President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "If a factory has just closed down in some town, at
once rush a [military recruitment] canvassing party there" (60). Douglas
MacArthur in 1934 testified before the US Senate that recruitment into the army
was the cheapest means to relieve unemployment. And historian Robert Griffith
declared that "The massive unemployment of the Great Depression represented a
bonanza to the regular army" (60). Rural communities, lacking many alternative
employment possibilities, are particularly hard hit by economic downturns.
Lack of education comes into play not only in limiting the employment
opportunities of young men, and now women, thus making them more likely to
enlist; education screening tests put in place for the Korean War and
subsequently revised have been used to determine qualifications for specific
military responsibilities. A study of combat infantry in Korea showed that
"personnel assignment policies introduced an additional screening effect.... [M]en
with civilian skills or education were assigned to rear-echelon duties ...
[whereas] men assigned to rifle company were most likely to lack highly valued
social attributes" (69).
World War II statistics show a more egalitarian profile in this category
simply because the armed services did not then have in place accurate enough
testing mechanisms to keep better educated recruits out of combat. Again, as
with race, education levels are linked with socioeconomic standing. Thus,
Fussell's conscripts and now volunteers from working-class or impoverished
communities are more likely to get combat infantry assignments and accordingly
die at higher rates.
The Casualty Gap's thoughtful analyses and arguments not only break
down the larger statistical picture, but reveal how single communities respond
to news of their own soldiers dying. Most disturbing is the clear pattern of
civic and political disengagement in communities bearing the greatest sacrifices
and most in need of increasingly unpopular government assistance. In this
regard, Tea-Partyism is a diabolically clever way to perpetuate casualty gaps.
Kriner and Shen close by quoting Benjamin Franklin's take on such inequity:
"The question then will amount to this: whether it be just in a community, that
the richer part should compel the poorer to fight in defence of them and their
properties, for such wages as they think fit to allow, and punish them if they
refuse. Our author tells us that it is 'legal.' I have not law enough to dispute
his authorities, but I cannot persuade myself that it is equitable" (234).
Were Mr. Franklin alive today, The Casualty Gap would persuade him
that it is not.