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Very interesting discussion. I may have missed it if you covered this, but I wonder if other changing expectations also influence public perceptions of the soldier's plight. For example, in the current surge, my understanding is that tours have been extended by three months (25%). Additionally, I'm not sure that either of you addressed the difference between active vs guard and reserve soldiers. I believe that the frequency of guard and reserve deployment is unprecedented. And hence, the public concern for soldier losses may not be as economically irrational as Posner believes.

Lee B

If we only employed unpatriotic mercenaries, who received all compensation in cash and not conscience, then the Iraq war would only be a waste of money. We would not mourn for the war fatalities any more than we mourn for the thousands of people who die on the job every year.

I agree with you Dr. Becker: the reason we feel for soldiers especially has to do with their patriotism. Many soldiers would not have left their families behind and risked death for such meager pay if it wasn't to defend their country.

What makes our grief so acute is the wide-spread belief that we did not hold up our end of the bargain. We sent them to their (probabilistic) deaths in a war that has nothing to do with defending their country.


I disagree with Lee B. in the last paragraph. How do you know they aren't defending their country? How many terrorist attacks have their been on the US since 9/11?

It also is not probable that they will die when they go into battle. There are more gun deaths in Washington DC than there have been in Iraq. There are certainly probabilities of death in battle. but those are influenced by a lot of variables when you are in the theatre. This is not to say that a soldier's death does not hurt, or causes us to grieve. It does, most certainly. I think that has more to do with the value that Americans place on life than what is going on in Iraq.

Atanu Dey

Since the invasion of Iraq, Islamic terrorism in India has intensified. I think it would be silly to conclude that the invasion casued a spike in the killings in India. Post hoc ergo propter hoc etc.

The fact that post Sept 11th, 2001, the US has not had a major terrorist attack cannot be meaningfully tied to the invasion of Iraq.


I think another interesting point to be raised is that to different Americans, the monetary compensation the Army provides for enlisting (including compensation for the uncertainty of death) is of different value.

For some from lower socio-economic standing, the proposition from the Army may represent the best possible value out of their options, while for some from more affluent backgrounds, the value offered is pretty insignificant when compared to the other options they face.

Political Umpire

"There is a widespread perception that the war has been fought with inadequate understanding of the enemy, and insufficient protection of American personnel serving in combat-related positions. That would mean the country has let its military personnel down."

Entirely true. It was known from the outset what weapons the Iraqi insurgents would use - the weapons of the former Iraqi army, chiefly AK 47s, RPGs and IEDs. Yet the US had soldiers patrolling from the beginning in Humvees, which offer little protection to any of them, certainly not those manning turrets (now being replaced by remote weapons systems, years late).

To argue that the Iraq invasion has made America safer requires belief that individuals planning attacks were based in Iraq. It has now been accepted even by the White House that Al-Queda had no presence there before the US led invasion. Instead, I would say that some attacks have been thwarted by better homeland security, whilst other terrorists have been attracted to fight Americans in Iraq rather than in the US. This is because they know that American failure in Iraq will be a damaging blow for American prestige and influence in the region, and indeed globally, more so even than another 9/11. They would also observe that more Americans have died in Iraq than did in 9/11.

Gonzalo Vergara

I would like to add a couple of observations to this topic. First, in my view, one of the reasons for public sympathy involves the weighed average of the impact of casualties upon various communities. The All-Volunteer-Force concept of the 1970s and 1980s evolved into the Total Force concept of the 1990s to the present. The all-volunteer active forces would be supplemented by forces from the reserves and the National Guard. These latter forces are part-time “weekend warriors” drawn from units from local communities within selected geographical areas. They did not envision being drawn into protracted military operations far away from home.

Consequently, the losses are felt to be community-wide losses rather than the loss for an individual family. For example, the loss of two or three soldiers from a NG unit from Sacramento, California has a greater impact to the community than the same loss of active forces soldiers who may come from different parts of the country. In this regard, smaller rural areas have borne a heavy price when multiple losses occur within a military unit from that area. This has happened many times in the war in Iraq. Consequently, there is a greater sense of loss that is magnified beyond the individual families concerned.

Second, I am of the opinion that the media portrayal of casualties has changed as well—in large measure in response to the collective guilt felt by the media and the public to the Vietnam War. As opposed to listing figures of casualties and showing body bags, the media (PBS for example) puts the official photographs of the soldiers who have lost their lives in front of the TV—a face from happy times. In this regard, we may draw an analogy to the Tom Cruise movie, ‘The Last Samurai’ where in response to the Emperor’s query “Tell me how he [the romantic samurai] died?” Tom Cruise’s character responds “No, I would like to tell you how he lived.” That is how our casualties are being depicted; as opposed to statistical listings; hence, a more personal response to their loss. Or as Soviet dictator Iosif Stalin put it, “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of millions a statistic.”

My third and final observation, why do they do it? I cannot speak for anyone else, but with respect to me, a short "war story" may help. While serving as a B-52 Electronic Warfare Officer in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command in the 1980s, I was stationed in northern Michigan. In the winters, it gets COLD!!! One night while on alert, we received an Alert Klaxon at about 2:45 A.M. While on alert, our job was to run out to our aircraft and prepare to take off on a moment's notice. As I was running in the cold Michigan night (-15 degrees F), I could see other guys running and falling on the ice, getting up again and running to the aircraft. I remembered thinking, I know none of us is doing this for money, but I know that there is a Soviet satellite up there taking pictures and reporting back to the Ministry of Defense that the strategic nuclear forces of the United States are wide awake this night.

This is what gives the buck its value; the fact that Gorbachev and his advisers know that there are large numbers of guys just like me running to their aircraft and are ready to kick him in the behind if the dares to mess with us. I remembered thinking that Gorbachev and the Soviets are not scared because some old man is marching (in front of a TV camera) with a "love not war" peace sign, or a pop star and his mistress stay in bed for a week for peace in the world (I wish I could afford to do that; staying in bed for a week).

NO, Gorbachov knows that it is not them who he will confront, but me and my other mates... As I got to my plane ... the United States will sleep in peace tonight.

Gonzalo I. Vergara, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.)
Lincoln Hills, California


To jeff: the Washington DC/Iraq gun death comparison is dubious (and I am guessing, based on one problematic survey that has been discredited). The rate of deaths due to violence in Iraq (and particularly large urban areas lie Baghdad) is many times that of a civilian or police officer in Washington DC.


"Although the pay required to attract volunteers rose after casualties began to appear in large numbers in Iraq, it did not rise by a large amount."

What did rise by a large amount, Dr. Becker, is the compensation for dying. The "death gratuity", which was initially a few thousand dollars was doubled and made tax-free -- then it was increased to $100k. Also, the maximum payout of SGLI life insurance was increased to $350k, from $200k.

Mark Hamilton

I served from 1994-1998 in the US Army, and I would like to point out two observations from my own experience.

First, the only motivating factor for my enlistment were the education benefits, patriotism never once entered into my mind.

Second, my enlistment ended in November of 1998, I was trying imagine what it would have been like if I ended my service in 2001 instead. I feel that it is more tragic for those who were currently in service when 9/11 occurred than it is for those who enlisted later. Enlistment contracts are from 2-8 years, and there is no possibility to update your beliefs and negotiate higher pay, or death benefits as the enlistment is fulfilled. Therefore, those who enlisted in a relatively peaceful era of say 1998, had less information of their explicit risk (implicitly every soldier knows that combat is a reality that could come to fruition) than those who enlisted on say 9/12/2001.

So, my sympathies are more for those who were serving before 9/11/2001, rather than those who joined post 9/11/2001 as they had the benefit of more complete information regarding the true nature of the risk they were assuming.

Ray DeGennaro

To me, the best economic reason for for compensation after death is ex post settling up. That is, we don't know who will die ex ante. We don't want to compensate those who don't die; we want to compensate those that do. The solution is to pay the heirs of those that do die when they die. That's better than paying everyone a (risk-adjusted, probability-weighted) salary increment ex ante.


Why should defense be considered as a public good? can we have competitive armies within country? The different divisions within an army and the battle honors create the competition. how about a mercenary division?

The question of risk is covered compensation mechanism which is in fact an incentive mechanism.

Jeff Suloff

There are two points I wish to add:
1. By definition, a volunteer worker does not get paid or receive compensation for services rendered. US Military personnel are clearly not volunteers, but mercenaries. They are paid substantially more than what is paid in countries where a draft exists, therefore their decision to join the military is also linked to pecuniary motives.
2. Being mercenaries does not preclude them being patriotic, in fact they clearly are more patriotic than the typical American. Otherwise we would be hearing about defections once the casualties started increasing. "Serving their country" is therefore one of the "benefits" they are receiving that is not compensated for monetarily, but is compensated with the support they receive from the rest of us.


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