Prophets And Losses -- The Experts Retreat -- Pundits Ponder A New Mystery: Why'd They Get It So Wrong?

WASHINGTON - Conventional wisdom, softened up for weeks, has now been thoroughly routed.

Thousands of American troops were supposed to be dead or wounded at this point. Hospitals stateside were going to be overwhelmed. The ground war was going to grind on for weeks. The battlefield would ``go chemical'' instantly. Public support for the war would evaporate. Israel would retaliate against Iraq and the allied coalition would fall apart. Terrorism would paralyze the West.

The truth is that fewer Americans died in the first three days of the ground war (four) than were killed in homicides during the same period in Washington, D.C. (seven). In retrospect, the months of agonizing, the endless testimony in Congress, the bold guesstimations of experts on TV, all seem farcically gloomy - the hand-wringing of doomsayers. But rather than admit error, many experts are fighting a rearguard action, claiming they weren't as wrong as it initially appears.

Prediction: ``If tens of thousands of Marines on the ground were inexcusably sent into a frontal attack against the Iraqi minefields, entrenched infantry, dug-in tanks and ample artillery now in Kuwait, many would die,'' said Edward N. Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a Jan. 13 article in The New York Times. In Senate testimony in November, Luttwak estimated that thousands of Americans would die in a ground invasion.

Explanation: He wasn't wrong, he was fudging. ``I was not going to give my real forecast of casualties,'' Luttwak said Wednesday. Rather, he said, he was trying to push a specific position, that the military should rely on air power and not ground forces. ``As an advocate,'' he said, ``you only make forecasts when they are conducive to your advocacy.''

Prediction: Brookings Institution strategist Joshua Epstein developed a sophisticated model for how many Americans would die in the war. His figures: U.S. casualties would range from 3,344 to 16,059. U.S. deaths would range from 1,049 to 4,136.

Explanation: The inputs were faulty, not the model. Garbage in, garbage out. Epstein says that no one realized that the Iraqis wouldn't put up much of a fight. ``They didn't resist. That's why I'm not humbled by the result. My model is a model of war. If war doesn't happen, the model doesn't apply.''

Prediction: The Center for Defense Information, an anti-war Pentagon watchdog group, predicted that 10,000 Americans would be killed and 35,000 wounded in an overland drive all the way to Baghdad.

Explanation: ``We were wrong, but we're happy we were wrong,'' said Capt. Jim Bush, associate director of the center. Speaking for himself, not the center, he praised his namesake in the White House: ``His timing was exactly right at every stage of the game. I think it's been a masterful political and military operation.''

Another prediction that does not seem to have come true is that American blacks would be killed in disproportionate numbers. Jesse Jackson testified in Congress that blacks were ``scheduled to die first and disproportionately in the war.''

But this prediction, however reasonable in anticipation of a ground war, was dependent on the prediction of heavy casualties in the infantry units, where blacks have their greatest representation in the military.

Not everyone got it wrong. John J. Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, predicted in the Chicago Tribune on Jan. 15 that the U.S. military would ``clobber'' the Iraqis and arrive in Kuwait City a day or two after the ground war began.

``I called this one,'' he boasts.

Retired Col. Trevor Dupuy, author of a book on how to defeat Saddam, also claims victory.

``Fortunately, everything's turning out exactly as I said it would,'' said Dupuy.

Well, not exactly. He predicted a minimum of 1,300 Americans killed, with up to 15,000 casualties total. But, at least so far, he gets credit for getting the chemical weapons part right - ``I predicted they would not be used. It would be more trouble for them than it would be for us.''

The non-use of chemical or biological weapons to date remains a puzzle. Their absence, though, continues a historical trend: They have rarely been used in major warfare.

Generals have always hated these kinds of weapons because they are subject to fickle winds, have limited tactical effectiveness and, not incidentally, are considered abhorrent and have thus been banned by international treaties.

Still, the Iraqis have used them in the past, and were presumed to be ready to use chemical weapons the moment the ground war began. No one can figure it out.

Prediction: Terrorism would be rampant.

``Saddam has put in place a network involving some of the most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world,'' Sen. David L. Boren, D-Okla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Jan. 18. Boren said he had been told by intelligence officials that Saddam intended to ``expand the battle'' worldwide.

Explanation: According to an aide to Boren, the Senator now believes there are a couple of possible explanations for the vanishing terrorists. Saddam may not have been able to communicate with his network after the bombing began. Or the terrorists might have simply abandoned Saddam because they didn't want to be associated with a loser.

In any case, the terrorism threat is hardly over.

Prediction: This war could turn into another Vietnam, a prolonged conflict with massive public protests.

In an article Jan. 19 in The New York Times, John Mueller, professor of political science at the University of Rochester, warned that American support for the war would erode quickly if the Iraqis managed to inflict substantial casualties.

Making a comparison to the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive of 1968, he wrote, ``The Iraqis might, for example, be able to sustain a Tet-like house-to-house battle in Kuwait City. Or they might retreat from Kuwait and launch persistent counter-attacks from Iraq, requiring a quagmire-like invasion of that country. . . .

``As in Vietnam, the battle will be over American public opinion, and the Iraqis seem to understand this. There is still a danger they may conquer us even while being devastated on the battlefield.''

Explanation: Mueller says his opposition to the war and preference for sanctions were reasonable, based on a ``risk calculus.''

``It seemed to me that the probabilities of it being quite ugly were high enough that I didn't want to take that risk.'' He also said, ``I would have preferred to have the same result without any war at all, with just the economic sanctions.''

Pundits can now ponder a new mystery: Why'd they get it so wrong? One high-ranking Pentagon official who closely follows the creation and dissemination of conventional wisdom offered a few thoughts on what happened, starting with an underestimation of the prowess of the American military.

``If you have been reading press accounts of the American military for the past 10 years you would come away with the impression that we're the gang that couldn't shoot straight with weapons that don't work,'' the official said.

He said what no one realized was that the American military actually learned something from the Vietnam disaster. Of the Pentagon's last two major wars it lost one and came away with a tie in the other; it had to get better, all the way down to studying Clausewitz.

Moreover, there were all kinds of factors favoring the allies - not the least of which was the desert itself. As TV footage has dramatically illustrated, the desert is ``universally trafficable,'' as the Pentagon official put it. You can drive on the stuff. And there're no trees, so the Iraqis were sitting ducks. They fought a static defense against an extremely mobile opponent.

``The generals are the only people this time fighting the right war. They've got the right weapons, the right doctrines and tactics, they've got the right troops. The protesters are protesting the last war, the press is reporting the last war, the politicians are debating the last war, and the experts are out in space somewhere,'' the official said.

But even the military got it wrong. ``Many, many people are going to die. And it's important for people to understand that it's not inconceivable we could lose.'' So said a U.S. general, quoted anonymously in the Jan. 13 Washington Post.

There was, unquestionably, every reason to suspect that this war would turn out much bloodier for Americans. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy used the military's own index of fear in his Senate speech Jan. 10 against taking military action:

``It'll be brutal and costly. . . . The administration refuses to release casualty estimates, but the 45,000 body bags the Pentagon has sent to the region are all the evidence we need of the high price in lives and blood that we will have to spare.''

What is not at all clear to many Americans is whether the war has been as just, as right, as moral as President Bush says it is. The activists in the peace movement are not about to recant their own conventional wisdom - that this war was an atrocity that should have been avoided.

Indeed, Bonnie Garvin, media coordinator for the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, said that recent events do not contradict but rather confirm the beliefs and arguments of the movement. What has happened, she says, proves that the anti-war movement was right all along:

``It points out what a myth the Bush administration created about the power of the Iraqi army. Remember one of the reasons we went there was that this powerful army was going to take over the Middle East and threaten that region.

``It's been very shocking how ineffectual they've been. I think it underscores that the administration once again lied about the real reason we were over there,'' she said.

She conceded that much of the opposition to the war was based on the prediction of massive losses of American lives. But she added, ``The thing that no one really anticipated was that the United States was really prepared to be as barbaric as it was, in terms of nonstop carpet bombing day in and day out. The fact that we're still killing civilians speaks to the true barbarism that none of us really banked on.''

Beyond the immediate political ramifications of the war, there will be the battles of memory, the academic debates, the intellectual squabbles and emotional turmoil as people try to reconstruct what happened, to figure out exactly what the Kuwait expedition was all about.

People may not be so ready to celebrate a war that has brought suffering and death to countless Iraqis, hundreds of them innocent civilians, thousands more hapless conscripts of an authoritarian regime.

Events, and the accompanying conventional wisdom, have a way of changing shape over time, and what might seem glorious at one point - like Custer's last stand or the charge up San Juan Hill - can seem misguided years later.

For the moment there is victory in the air, but this is not the end of the story. Wars belong to history; wars are forever.