How many people would die in an Iraqi War?
Of course, Iraqi attacks against civilian populations in places like the United States could be serious, especially if they involved biological agents, in which case plausible casualties could reach into the hundreds or even the thousands. But Iraqi special forces have not focused on preparing for such attacks in the past; instead, they have reportedly been dedicated to efforts to acquire technologies for producing weapons of mass destruction. It is also unlikely that Iraq has access to the most dangerous pathogens, such as smallpox. On the other hand, Saddam may be willing to provide such agents to Hezbollah or al-Qaida operatives under certain circumstances. On balance, the risk that germ or chemical weapons will be used successfully may be relatively small—but it is also quite real.
Iraq could also increase casualty levels of U.S. or coalition forces by using WMD against them, particularly its thousands of chemical-filled artillery shells and rockets. But doing so would probably increase casualties by no more than 10 to 20 percent, given historical precedent in conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war. U.S. forces are much better equipped to protect themselves from such attacks than most militaries have been in the past. Nonetheless, Iraq might gain some military advantage by using battlefield chemical weapons, if at a huge cost to its own civilian populations (and perhaps to its own troops, should winds shift). The use of chemical weapons could oblige coalition forces to fight in protective gear, slowing operations and generally complicating the mission. If the effects of fighting in such gear were comparable to those of fighting in bad weather or difficult terrain, the pace of fighting and the effectiveness of coalition forces might decline 25 to 50 percent, and casualties might rise by a comparable percentage.
The United States and coalition partners would win any future war to overthrow Saddam Hussein in a rapid and decisive fashion. This will not be another Vietnam or another Korea. But casualties could be significantly greater on all sides than in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The best analogy for what such combat is likely to involve is not Desert Storm, but the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama—and on a much larger scale. There is a very real possibility that American deaths could exceed 1,000 in number, and several thousand deaths cannot be ruled out. To count on easy victory, as many American proponents of war seem to do, is not only unsupported by the available evidence and by the methodologies of combat prediction. It's also an irresponsible basis on which to plan military strategy in any future war against Saddam Hussein.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Photograph on Slate's home page of U.S. military personnel by Sukree Sukplang/Reuters.