Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2006


In their article “Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq,” Christopher Gelpi, Peter Feaver, and Jason Reifler attempt to flush out the relationship between public opinion and the use of force as it pertains to the Iraq war.1 The authors promote the following proposition: “Our thesis is that expectations of future success are the key determinants of public casualty tolerance. That is, the U.S. public can accept that the war is not yet won and will involve continued and even mounting costs, provided that events thus far are not convincing it that eventual success is impossible” (p. 24). This statement actually contains two theses. First, public support for a military operation will not necessarily wane in the face of rising casualties.2 Second, the public’s tolerance for casualties is most affected by its expectation of victory (i.e., ultimate strategic success). These theses are consistent with Feaver and Gelpi’s argument in their earlier work: “Casualty phobia is not the dominant feature of the general public. On the contrary, policymakers can tap into a large reservoir of support for missions, even missions that entail a fairly high human price, provided those missions are successful. The public is defeat phobic, not casualty phobic.”3 Applying this argument to Iraq, Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler assert that, as long as Americans expect victory, they will tolerate mounting casualties and thus support the war. Put another way, they claim that opposition to the Iraq war is driven not by casualties per se, but by the expectation of failure: “When the public believes that the mission will succeed, it continues to support the mission, even as costs mount. When the public thinks victory is unlikely, even small costs will cause support to plummet” (pp. 15–16). To test their theses, Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler begin by trying to establish that rising casualties do not necessarily produce a corresponding drop in public support. To do this, they tracked presidential approval ratings against casualties over a twenty-month period (from March 2003 through October 2004) and divided this period into three phases of the war.


Published in International Security, vol. 31 no. 2 (2006), pp. 186-198.