Book Review: When Soldiers Fall:How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan

“As casualties mount, support decreases.”
– John Mueller

When Soldiers Fall by Steven Casey

When Soldiers Fall:How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan by Steven Casey is a study of the actions and behavior of the US government and its people to its own war dead. Casey earned his undergraduate degree from the University of East Anglia. Both his masters and doctorate were earned from Oxford. He was a junior Research Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Trinity College. For over the last decade he has been at the London School of Economics. Casey has published articles and books on the Korean War, Cold War, and casualty reporting. 

This is certainly a book where a great education helps produce a great book. What also separates and elevates this book above most is that Casey is on the outside looking into American politics and foreign policy. Although, not advanced, as Casey’s I do share his education background and was anxious to read his insight into this sensitive and current issue in America. 

A few key points were made in the book. Casualty reporting, by the government, was a 20th century creation. For example during the Civil War, commanders kept track of causalities, not for reporting, but rather to keep track of empty spots in their ranks. World War I brought in the first casualty reporting, but with it came a problem. With the massive scale of offensives, the casualty counts were prime intelligence material. If the enemy knew the number of dead caused by their offensive action, they could first judge the effectiveness of the attack and secondly, with other casualty reports determine weak spots in allied defenses. Delays in transatlantic communications also contributed to problems in reporting. It could be weeks after a major offensive before any casualties were reported. 

Perhaps one of the greatest problems with America is politics and political perception. In the opening of the book, Casey compares Bush and Obama. Bush prevented the media from photographing the returning caskets from Iraq and Afghanistan. He was criticized for hiding the war dead from the public to prevent a popular backlash against the war. Obama allowed the press and was present for the return of the dead at Dover Air Force Base. He was criticized for using the dead for a photo op and his own personal gain. America politicizes everything and the vast majority of politics falls into only two camps. The American public treats politics like a major sporting event. No matter how alike the two teams are, people expand on the minor points until they believe victory by the other side would be a catastrophe. 

Accuracy of reporting even in the most recent times can be called in question. The Jessica Lynch story is a prime example. Ambushed by the Iraqis, Lynch returned fire, and was shot/stabbed/raped in the conflict before taken prisoner and tortured. In reality, her convoy had gotten lost and her vehicle was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, her rifle jammed, and she fell unconscious. She was taken prisoner and hospitalized, by her own testimony, she was treated well. Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman was reported to be killed in a firefight and awarded the Silver Star in a nationally televised memorial service. Later, it was found Tillman died from friendly fire and it was covered up. Another problem remains the difference in definitions causality. Causality means different things to different government agencies: Killed, wounded and evacuated, wounded and not evacuated, minor wounds, missing in action. Accuracy of information is a problem even today. The media is competing for the breaking story. The military is competing for need for security. The politicians are competing for their popularity. The mission of the three rarely intersect. 

War is a complex issue for America. We like the idea of fighting for what is (or we are lead to believe is) right, but quickly become weary of war when we learn that American’s are dying. Support for the second war in Iraq was high at the start when we believed the that there were weapons of mass destruction or Saddam Hussein played a part in 9/11. As the we lost faith in the reason and the body count rose, opinion changed. After WWI, it took Pearl Harbor to persuade America to pick up arms and fight on foreign shores again. Even then as the war went on, it was not popular, but seen as necessary. Korea became a war where soldiers “die for a tie.” Even as the war was being fought, it earned the nickname of the “Forgotten War.” Vietnam brought a major change America both politically and socially. No matter how many people supported going to war with the Japanese or more recently the Taliban or Iraq, the casualty count changed people’s minds.

Technology plays an increasing role in America’s war planning. Technology saves lives and makes great press. America loved the smart bomb footage from the First Gulf War; it made great television. So much so Roger Waters even commented on in the song “The Bravery of Being Out of Range”

Hey bartender over here
Two more shots
And two more beers
Sir turn up the TV sound
The war has started on the ground
Just love those laser guided bombs
They’re really great
For righting wrongs
You hit the target
And win the game
From bars 3,000 miles away

Obama likes drone strikes. Clinton liked cruise missile attacks. Under Obama some 2,000 to 2,500 people have been killed with drone attacks while sparing any threat to American military. Clinton’s motives were the same. Maximum damage with minimal risk to American lives. 

America likes its wars short, high tech, and low casualty. Perhaps the only president in the 20th century to become more popular by a war in his own presidency was G.H.W. Bush. He had a 89% approval rating at the end of the war, but failed to win re-election. Casey does an outstanding job of dissecting what would seem like the process of reporting war casualties. He puts each war in its historical and domestic political perspective. The work is well documented and very well written. As controversial as the subject can be, I can find little fault in his work. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the politics and reporting in war time and the complexities of the reporting America’s war dead.

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