Was diggin' the recent Gamespot article about perma-death, but as much as it's easy to romanticize the mechanic, it's more than merely a matter of "because it's more manly." I've plugged in over 120 hours (on all three slots) with Awakening, went back and finished Sacred Stones a few days ago, and I'm now midway through Shadow Dragon (the underappreciated, red-headed stepchild of the Fire Emblem series), while simultaneously playing Radiant Dawn off and on. I've got Fire Emblem on the brain right now. The new game has definitely inspired a personal revival.
But what about this whole "perma-death" thing. First, let me just say, though I didn't use the option, I was glad to see Intelligent Systems add the Casual Mode to Awakening (not its first appearance in the series, by the way). The series has had a bit of trouble gaining traction here in the States, in spite of a very devoted, albeit relatively small, fanbase. But it should be obvious by now, Awakening has really made a dent into the mainstream awareness of this series, I'm certain in no small part due to lowering the barrier of entry.
All that being said, I still believe perma-death is absolutely an essential part of the gameplay because, well, if death isn't a concern, all you have to worry about is getting through a given battle. But with perma-death present, you have to think several battles -- even endgame -- ahead. It's really as simple as that. It's not about being elite or manly or hardcore; it's about a fundamental change in gameplay. With perma-death, Fire Emblem is, in a lot of ways, similar to chess. Without it, it has more in common with any number of other SRPGs on the market.
I love Awakening. It's up there with my favorite FE games. I love the options, the production values, the carefree changes that play into all the trappings that make us love games like Final Fantasy Tactics. But don't underestimate the importance of perma-death in a Fire Emblem game. Play it any way you like, but trust me, it's an integral part of the formula.