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The extent to which combat casualties influence the public's support for war is one of the most frequently and fiercely debated subjects in current American life and has cast an enormous shadow over both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The common assumption, based largely on U.S. experience in past wars, is that the public is in some way casualty averse or casualty shy, and that as losses increase its support for a war will inexorably decline. Yet this assumption has been adopted as conventional wisdom without any awareness of one of the most important dimensions of the issue: how has the public become aware of the casualties sustained during particular wars? To what extent has the government tried to manipulate or massage the figures? When and why have these official figures been challenged by opportunistic political opponents or aggressive scoop-seeking reporters? As Steven Casey demonstrates, at key moments in most wars what the public actually receives is not straightforward and accurate casualty totals, but an enormous amount of noise based on a mixture of suppression, suspicion, and speculation. This book aims to correct this gap in information by showing precise what casualty figures the government announced during its various wars, the timing of these announcements, and any spin officials may have placed upon these, using a range of hitherto untapped primary documents. Among the nuggets he has uncovered is that during World War I the media depended on Axis figures and that the Army and Navy did not announce casualty figures for an entire year during World War II. Organized chronologically, the book addresses the two world wars, the limited wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the recent conflicts that are part of the War on Terror. Using sources such as the private military command papers of Generals Patton, MacArthur, and Westmoreland, and previously unopened New York Times archives, it offers the first analysis of how the U.S. government has publicized combat casualties during these wars, and how these official announcements have been debated and disputed by other voices in the polity. Casey discusses factors such as changes of presidential administration, the improvement of technology, the sending of war correspondents to cover multiple conflicts, and the increasing ability to identify bodies. Casey recreates the complicated controversies that have surrounded key battles, and in doing so challenges the simplicity of the oft-repeated conventional wisdom that "as casualties mount, support decreases." By integrating military and political history, he presents a totally new interpretation of U.S. domestic propaganda since 1917, filling a major gap left by a spate of recent books. Finally, it provides a fresh and engaging new perspective on some of the biggest battles in recent American history, including the Meuse-Argonne, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, China's intervention in the Korean War, the Tet Offensive, and the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. This book should speak to the military, political, and media history markets, and it should also reach a wider audience that is debating contemporary casualty figures.
Steven Casey is Reader in International History at the London School of Economics. His books include Cautious Crusade and Selling the Korean War, which won the Truman Book Award.