WASHINGTON — Americans have grown used to nearly costless wars. The New York Times headlined one story: “Invading Forces Capture Key Bridge — More American Deaths.” It left readers to ponder which was the more interesting news nugget — that a bridge was taken, or that U.S. soldiers died taking it.

That Americans die in battle was not considered to be news in earlier conflicts. In most of them the casualty lists were hideously long.

Despite complaints about the American public’s low tolerance for casualties, it has accepted huge losses when it believed the goal to be worthwhile. In contrast, tracking down one of many warlords didn’t seem worth the 19 dead Rangers in Mogadishu.

The Clinton administration thought Americans would react the same way in Kosovo when it decided to impose an outside settlement in one of the smaller of a score of civil wars around the world. Thus the bombing from 5,000 meters and refusal to mount a ground invasion.

With luck, the American public’s willingness to accept losses won’t be seriously tested in the current war. Even mounting Iraqi resistance is not likely to generate the kind of carnage seen in past conflicts, where Uncle Sam’s qualitative and technological dominance was not so great.

Yet while the casualties so far have been mercifully low, every one leaves a family in anguish. And other families breathing a sad sigh of temporary relief.

Moreover, every potential casualty — that is, every serviceman or woman in harm’s way — leaves a family worried, nervous, and on edge. With units on the move, people can only catch TV and scan the newspapers for an indication as to the whereabouts of their son or daughter. And for evidence that their loved one was not likely the one killed, wounded or captured.

It’s an experience that I’ve largely avoided. I grew up a military brat, with great respect for the profession of arms but not desiring to enter it myself. It takes special commitment to turn over control of one’s life to a boss as fickle as Uncle Sam.

My father was career U.S. Air Force, but he forecast weather for combat pilots rather than flew combat sorties. We were stationed stateside during the Vietnam War, so my classmates’ parents also were at little risk.

Two decades ago my brother-in-law enlisted in the Air Force. However, he has been tasked to keep supplies moving, not drop bombs. Thus, I and my family have been spared worrying about his safety during a variety of small-scale invasions and wars.

Yet the risks of military service have never seemed too far away. My racquetball player and Navy reservist friend has been called up, but to do intelligence work for the Defense Intelligence Agency. My neighbor, a Navy commander, was nearly hit by the 9/11 attack while working at the Pentagon, but at least he’s far from Iraqi bullets.

Not so lucky, though, is my assistant pastor, an active duty-turned-reserve Marine Corps infantry officer, called up for occupation duty in Afghanistan. At least he’s not racing toward Baghdad.

But two other members of my church, another Marine Corps reservist, also currently on active duty, and an Army infantryman, are in the Persian Gulf. I don’t know them too well, but I think of them when I see casualty reports. And their families’ anxiety is evident.

The sacrifices that servicemen and women and their families make during war is obvious. “Only” 148 Americans died in Persian Gulf War I, but I met the mother-in-law of one, still grieving a year after his death. In Persian Gulf War II, the impacts of death will similarly linger long after the occupation of Baghdad ends.

Less dramatic, but more persistent, are sacrifices made in peacetime. My family counted itself lucky for lasting seven years at one posting while I was in elementary and middle school.

The service offers enormous responsibility: Men and women, often not yet able to legally drink, prepare weapons for battle, guide airplanes onto carriers, maneuver in combat and share responsibility for countless lives around them. Such duty brings satisfaction, to be sure, but little money and little more public recognition.

Life is often boring, filled with lines, meaningless rules and long hours. Families no less than soldiers must adapt to the vagaries of service life, including long absences and sometimes difficult reunions.

Most incredible, perhaps, is that so many men and women choose to join and remain. Like my brother-in-law, they love their country, long to serve, yearn for responsibility, enjoy the comradeship and want to be soldiers.

Those of us who have chosen other career paths owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. They deserve our thanks, support, and prayers — especially now, during wartime.

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