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Marine head warns Americans ‘not sensitized’ to likely high US casualties of a WWII-like future war

U.S. Marines and Navy Hospital Corpsmen with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) litter carry a simulated causality to a CH-53E Super Stallion from the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 (Reinforced) during a medical evacuation exercise at Arta Range, Oct. 31, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Staci Miller/Released)
September 28, 2020

Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, warned that Americans are not used to seeing the scale of U.S. casualties — such as those seen in World War II — as would be likely in a future conflict with a comparable adversary.

In an interview on Thursday with Defense One, Berger was asked how a potential future conflict in the Indo-Pacific region could compare to challenges the Marine Corps faced during World War II and if the Marines could expect high casualties in such a conflict.

“We’re not resigned to high casualties, but we should not think that in a great power competition it’s going to be clean,” Berger said. “We haven’t had that kind of high number of casualties in a long while. … The public is not sensitized to that today, on either side.”

According to the National World War II Museum, approximately 418,500 U.S. troops and civilians were killed in World War II. By comparison, about 7,000 U.S. troops and civilian Department of Defense employees have been killed in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, which began with fighting in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, according to the DOD.

Berger said that the Marine Corps’ goal in a conflict with a peer adversary would be to avoid head-to-head battles and instead find weaknesses in the enemy. Berger said, “We’re not in any way preparing for an attrition fight, neither is the adversary. Neither one of us wants that.”

“Both of us are not looking for a strength-on-strength fight at all, we’re not looking for a fight period,” Berger said. “All that to say, this does not come without risk. Great Power competition, as does counterinsurgency, comes with casualties if it comes to a scrap.”

Berger did say that U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq are used to what he called a “Golden Hour” where “Within one hour, you get knocked down or shot on the leg, boom, you’re in a [Level III trauma center] within 60 minutes, that’s the yardstick. That’s not reasonable when you’re fighting a distributed fight, so that means we have to have the medical capability more forward than we did before.”

Berger said in an Indo-Pacific conflict scenario, a wounded service member may not get to a level three trauma center “for four hours or four days.”

“So the medical care we have to be able to provide on site to you, has got to be a lot different than ‘golden hour’ means just patch them together, stabilize them, get them on a plane,” Berger said. “We have to deliver medical capabilities, logistics, far forward in a different way than we needed to in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Berger said logistics are a significant challenge in a great power conflict, whereas before, “Okay, a couple people with an [improvised explosive device] might blow up a vehicle, that’s going to delay our resupply; that was the extent of our logistical backside watching, it was never really threatened.”

A conflict with a peer adversary requires the U.S. to assume the enemy will try to disrupt U.S. logistics, Berger said. China is just one nation that has focused its military buildup to pursue anti-access area denial (A2AD) strategies.

Berger has pursued moves to streamline the Marines, including doing away with heavy equipment like tanks, cutting back on aircraft, and forming new, highly maneuverable units.