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This monograph, part of a larger study of ways to reduce collateral damage undertaken for the U.S. Air Force, analyzes media and public reactions to civilian casualty incidents, whether these incidents affect media reporting or public support for military operations, and, if so, how. It analyzes case studies of incidents of civilian deaths in the February 1991 bombing of the Al Firdos bunker in the Gulf War, the April and May 1999 attacks on the Djakovica convoy and Chinese embassy during the war in Kosovo, the June 2002 attack involving an Afghan wedding party during operations in Afghanistan, and the March 2003 incident involving a large explosion in a crowded Baghdad marketplace to describe and explain how the U.S. and foreign media and publics have responded. For each case study, the study team examined press, public, and leadership responses to these incidents and found the following. First, while avoiding civilian casualties is important to the American public, it has realistic expectations about the actual possibilities for avoiding casualties. Second, the press reports heavily on civilian casualty incidents. Third, adversaries understand the public’s sensitivities to civilian deaths and have sought to exploit them. Fourth, during armed conflict, the belief that the United States and its allies are trying to avoid casualties most affects support for U.S. military operations, both at home and abroad. Fifth, while strong majorities of Americans typically give U.S. military and political leaders the benefit of the doubt when civilian casualty incidents occur, this does not necessarily extend to foreign audiences. Sixth, when civilian casualty incidents occur, it is at least as important to get the story right as to get the story out. Finally, attention to and concern about civilian casualties both at home and abroad have increased in recent years and may continue to do so.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Operation Desert Storm (Iraq, 1991)

  • Chapter Three

    Operation Allied Force (Kosovo, 1999)

  • Chapter Four

    Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan, 2001–)

  • Chapter Five

    Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq, 2003–)

  • Chapter Six

    Implications and Conclusions

  • Appendix

    Multivariate Statistical Modeling Results

Book Review Excerpts

"This detailed and data-heavy study was commissioned by the US Air Force as part of a larger study of 'collateral damage', or unintentional and incidental damage to non-military targets during combat…The authors offer a number of conclusions, some more expected than others…This is an important study, not least because it is so firmly grounded empirically…One of the most important conclusions is that, for the military, getting the story right is more important than getting it out quickly. Contradictory and inaccurate information can erode credibility, and defeat the purpose of scooping the enemy or beating media deadlines. A second is that non-US audiences are far more likely to believe that civilian casualties result from a callous disregard for life, or even from design, on the part of the United States. There is little the US military could do in its own right to rectify this; it is a problem of perceptions of America more broadly…"

- Survival, April-May 2008

"Just as I began reading this volume, the news media reported from Iraq that the U.S. military had killed 17 men in the village of al-Khalis after mistakenly identifying them as al Qaeda fighters. A few days earlier, seven children had been killed during an air strike by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan on what was believed to be a religious compound and hideout of al Qaeda. Although the authors examine news reporting and public opinion about civilian deaths during military deployments in the past, this book is nevertheless very timely."

- Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2007-08

"Part of a larger study of collateral damage commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, this monograph examines and compares five incidents involving civilian casualties that occurred in recent U.S. wars… Employing quantitative analyses of news reports in elite print and electronic media outlets before and after the incidents and extensive analyses of public opinion polls, the authors sought to determine whether and how the incidents affected U.S. and foreign media reporting and public support. Their findings, much simplified here, are straightforward. In each case study, civilian casualties received considerable attention in the press and were played up by adversary governments, which sought to use them to erode American support for the wars in question. Whatever the reporting of the press and the bantering of enemy propagandists, however, most Americans appeared to understand that it will never be possible to eliminate all civilian casualties from modern warfare. As in the Vietnam War, although concerned about civilian casualties, they placed far more importance among their own and allied forces…"

- Journal of Military History, October 2007

"The authors address how the US press and public react to civilian deaths during war, arguing that the public is more realistic about casualties during war than conventional wisdom may suggest. Larson and Savych suggest that what matters most for public support of military actions is whether the public and press believe that the military is doing all it can to minimize civilian casualties… Recommended."

- CHOICE, October 2007

"This is a substantial study of the important question of public reactions to incidents in war that result in substantial civilian casualties. After considering the full range of reactions to high-profile incidents in the Gulf War, Kosovo, and the Iraq war, the authors conclude that the public understands the issues and difficulties perfectly well, despite the media's fixation on these incidents and the attempt by adversaries to exploit them. Reactions ultimately depend on whether the public believes that attempts are being made to limit civilian casualties (rather than depending on the number of civilian casualties). The problem, which has become more serious since the main case studies covered in this book, is that foreign audiences may not be so understanding or so ready to trust the U.S. military."

- Foreign Affairs, Sept/October 2007

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The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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