NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Having The Stomach For Risks

November 8, 1999

Ever since the Vietnam War, the common wisdom has had it that Americans are averse to global involvements which put U.S. armed forces at risk. But recent studies indicate the public may be less risk-averse than government officials -- and even the Pentagon.

The following findings are part of a larger study of civilian-military relations conducted by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies:

  • When asked how many American military deaths would be acceptable to stabilize a democratic government in Congo, participants who were among the military elite replied on average 284, non-veterans selected from Who's Who to represent the civilian elite said 494, while the mass public said 6,861.
  • When asked about acceptable levels of military deaths in order to prevent Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, the military answered 6,016, the civilian elite contingent replied 19,045, and the mass public estimated 29,853.
  • When asked for an acceptable body count to defend Taiwan against an invasion by China, the military came up with 17,425, civilian elite said 17,554, while the mass public answered 20,172.

The researchers concluded that a majority of the American people will accept combat deaths -- but only so long as the mission has the potential to be successful. They also found that women and older people are substantially more averse to casualties.

Source: Peter D. Feaver (Duke University) and Christopher Gelpi (Duke University), "How Many Deaths Are Acceptable? A Surprising Answer," Washington Post, November 7, 1999.


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