International Relations Casualties and Politics
Scott Sigmund Gartner, Gary M. Segura, Ericka T. Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0279


Casualties are elemental to war—from Roman battles two thousand years ago to the current conflict in Afghanistan and into the future—combat involves the loss of military personnel. Military casualties not only represent a citizen’s ultimate sacrifice to defend their country but also one of the few metrics that allows comparison of conflict costs across countries and time. In addition to representing sacrifice, casualties capture information—they represent the most important way that wars, especially those far from home, inform and influence people, politics, and society. The human losses of a conflict drive peoples’ assessments of a war; determine their support for leaders; shape their positions on the conflict; and, ultimately, in a democracy, affect votes, elections, civic cultures, and policies. In some conflicts, there are other observable indicators of success and failure, such as armies driving across maps. In many recent wars, however, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, information from the battlefield is distant and ambiguous to those back home. Citizen military losses can make these remote wars feel close, real, and costly. There are four types of military casualties: (1) military personnel who died (killed in action [KIA]), (2) those who are injured (wounded in action [WIA], resulting from combat or noncombat actions), (3) those who are captured (prisoners of war [POW]), and (4) those unaccounted for (missing in action [(MIA]). In some recent wars and, in particular, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States reported almost no MIAs or POWs. Thus, given these historical trends, and consistent with much of the literature, this article uses casualty to mean military KIA unless specified otherwise. Scholars have identified a variety of ways for wartime casualty information to travel from the battlefield to the home front, including social networks, news media, leader communications, photographs, and other mechanisms. These studies connect distant battlefields to citizens back home and capture how wartime information influences their assessments, attitude formations, and actions. This research can be considered as having occurred in three expanding waves. While the initial wave of Vietnam War–era literature determined that military deaths negatively affected mass opinion, subsequent waves critically examined how variation in military deaths, such as their geographical and temporal proximity, influences mass opinion and, more importantly, individuals’ assessments. Thus, scholars have shown that military casualties profoundly influence mass and individual attitudes toward a war and its leaders, national and local elections, elites’ wartime positions, democratic political culture, and many other critical political phenomena. Together, the body of literature highlighted here reflects a complex set of relationships between casualties and politics that, while not representing a phobia or condition of zero tolerance, remains essential for understanding wartime domestic political behavior.

General Overview

States design militaries to kill and hurt their adversaries. As a result, the use of military force almost always results in human costs, known as casualties. These costs have considerable impact on a variety of political, economic, social, psychological, and historical dynamics. This article examines the role of same country military casualties on domestic politics. Several reasons support the importance and influence of same country military casualties on the study of war and politics. First, governments collect and publish historical data comparing the total wartime casualties of various conflicts. For example, there is a longstanding table on military casualties in American wars supported by the Department of Defense (DoD) and included in standard references such as the Historical Statistics of the United States. Second, unlike civilian casualties, figures on military casualties are far more accurate. Countries have vast bureaucracies that tally and identify their military losses. Thus, “American combat deaths are the most accurate statistics from the Vietnam War. Enormous effort goes into U.S. casualty reporting in any war, with a name, rank, and serial number standing behind every figure added to the toll” (Thayer 1985, p. 104). Third, military casualty figures are generally public as militaries often release information about individual military personnel deaths and media outlets report loss data. This results in a vast quantity of data across and within conflicts about military deaths. Fourth, in addition to recording casualties, most countries also record critical information about their military losses, such as the day of death, hometowns, service, race, ethnicity, and age. Fifth, many people see military casualties as a, if not the, key measure of war costs, making them essential for understanding wartime opinion formation.

  • Goldberg, Matthew S. “Death and Injury Rates of U.S. Military Personnel in Iraq.” Military Medicine 175.4 (2010): 220–226.

    DOI: 10.7205/MILMED-D-09-00130

    Examines factors driving the relationship between WIA KIA figures among US troops in the Iraq War. Finds that the US military suffered proportionally fewer deaths in the Iraq War compared to those injured in previous conflicts, although rates varied during and after the Surge.

  • Thayer, Thomas C. War without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1985.

    Highly authoritative presentation and assessment of Vietnam War quantitative data. Thayer provides both a range of data as well as details on the ways data were gathered during his experience as an operation system deployment (OSD) analyst in the Vietnam War, where he participated in collecting and analyzing these data.

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