America’s War-Weary Public

A new wave of neocon opinion is pounding President Obama for failing to keep troops in Iraq and resisting wars in Syria and Iran – claiming U.S. prestige and power are in decline – but these bellicose appeals are, for once, getting little traction with a war-weary public, as Lawrence S. Wittner observes.

By Lawrence S. Wittner

When it comes to war, the American public is remarkably fickle. The responses of Americans to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide telling examples.

In 2003, according to opinion polls, 72 percent of Americans thought going to war in Iraq was the right decision. By early 2013, support for that decision had declined to 41 percent. Similarly, in October 2001, when U.S. military action began in Afghanistan, it was backed by 90 percent of the American public. By December 2013, public approval of the Afghanistan war had dropped to only 17 percent.

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

In fact, this collapse of public support for once-popular wars is a long-term phenomenon.  Although World War I preceded public opinion polling, observers reported considerable enthusiasm for U.S. entry into that conflict in April 1917. But, after the war, the enthusiasm melted away. In 1937, when pollsters asked Americans whether the United States should participate in another war like the World War, 95 percent of the respondents said “No.”

And so it went. When President Truman dispatched U.S. troops to Korea in June 1950, 78 percent of Americans polled expressed their approval. By February 1952, according to polls, 50 percent of Americans believed that U.S. entry into the Korean War had been a mistake.

The same phenomenon occurred in connection with the Vietnam War. In August 1965, when Americans were asked if the U.S. government had made “a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam,” 61 percent of them said “No.” But by August 1968, support for the war had fallen to 35 percent, and by May 1971 it had dropped to 28 percent.

Of all America’s wars over the past century, only World War II has retained mass public approval. And this was a very unusual war – one involving a devastating military attack upon American soil, fiendish foes determined to conquer and enslave the world, and a clear-cut, total victory.

In almost all cases, though, Americans turned against wars they once supported. How should one explain this pattern of disillusionment? The major reason appears to be the immense cost of war — in lives and resources.

During the Korean and Vietnam wars, as the body bags and crippled veterans began coming back to the United States in large numbers, public support for the wars dwindled considerably. Although the Afghanistan and Iraq wars produced fewer American casualties, the economic costs have been immense. Two recent scholarly studies have estimated that these two wars will ultimately cost American taxpayers from $4 trillion to $6 trillion.

As a result, most of the U.S. government’s spending no longer goes for education, health care, parks, and infrastructure, but to cover the costs of war. It is hardly surprising that many Americans have turned sour on these conflicts. But if the heavy burden of wars has disillusioned many Americans, why are they so easily suckered into supporting new ones?

A key reason seems to be that that powerful, opinion-molding institutions – the mass communications media, government, political parties, and even education – are controlled, more or less, by what President Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” And, at the outset of a conflict, these institutions are usually capable of getting flags waving, bands playing, and crowds cheering for war.

But it is also true that much of the American public is very gullible and, at least initially, quite ready to rally ‘round the flag. Certainly, many Americans are very nationalistic and resonate to super-patriotic appeals. A mainstay of U.S. political rhetoric is the sacrosanct claim that America is “the greatest nation in the world” – a very useful motivator of U.S. military action against other countries. And this heady brew is topped off with considerable reverence for guns and U.S. soldiers.  (“Let’s hear the applause for Our Heroes!”)

Of course, there is also an important American peace constituency, which has formed long-term peace organizations, including Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and other antiwar groups. This peace constituency, often driven by moral and political ideals, provides the key force behind the opposition to U.S. wars in their early stages.

But it is counterbalanced by staunch military enthusiasts, ready to applaud wars to the last surviving American. The shifting force in U.S. public opinion is the large number of people who rally ‘round the flag at the beginning of a war and, then, gradually, become fed up with the conflict. And so a cyclical process ensues.

Benjamin Franklin recognized it as early as the eighteenth century, when he penned a short poem for  A Pocket Almanack For the Year 1744: War begets Poverty, Poverty Peace; Peace makes Riches flow, (Fate ne’er doth cease.) Riches produce Pride, Pride is War’s Ground; War begets Poverty &c. The World goes round.

There would certainly be less disillusionment, as well as a great savings in lives and resources, if more Americans recognized the terrible costs of war before they rushed to embrace it. But a clearer understanding of war and its consequences will probably be necessary to convince Americans to break out of the cycle in which they seem trapped.

Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is What’s Going On at UAardvark? (Solidarity Press), a satirical novel about campus life.

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5 comments on “America’s War-Weary Public

  1. Amanda Matthews on said:

    Here’s what’s really chapping neo-con and neo-liberal ass

    ***
    Russia’s Growing Middle East Influence

    Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved perhaps his most desired goal in 2013: He successfully positioned Russia as indispensable to resolving key international problems. And nowhere has his success been more visible than in the Syrian conflict and Iranian nuclear negotiations.

    But behind the scenes, Russia is playing an even more significant role, and is an increasingly assertive player throughout the broader Middle East. It’s a trend the West cannot ignore.

    According to Russian press reports, the Kremlin struck a $2 billion weapons agreement with Egypt last month, the culmination of years of quiet Kremlin efforts to revive Russia’s Cold War relationships in the region.

    “Today Russia is coming back to many regions it lost in the 90s.

    http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/08/russias-growing-middle-east-influence/

    ***

    I think this is what happens when a regions people are tired of endless wars that the U.S. started, and the sounds of drones over their heads.

  2. johnmccrillis3954@yahoo.com on said:

    We are not war weary!!!!!! Fool use once shame on you, fool us twice shame on us.

  3. Excellent brief summary on the damning cyclicality of the peace/war/peace/war phenomenon. It’d normally be a cycle of casual interest IF it were not for the fact that people are experiencing HORRIBLE outcomes because of this now well-documented horror known as war! As a 60+ yr old individual, I have to say one of the major political disappointment in my lifetime was that too many of my ‘baby-boomer’ generation seemed NOT to learn any lasting anti-war lesson from the Vietnam debacle – - – it was just seemingly perceived as an individually bad war… an anomaly and not part of a larger pattern to be avoided. The ethos here in the US now seems to be that as long as we have a VOLUNTEER military (and no ‘important’ middle/upper class white-males are getting killed), it doesn’t really matter much if we cause a 100,000 or even up to 1,000,000+ Iraqis (or other men, women or child ‘terrorists’) to die , or that we displace 2-3,000,000 of them and destroy their infrastructure because it was all ‘an intelligence mistake’ and we can act conveniently naive and say we didn’t know the government was capable of lying us into a war. And anyways, ‘none of US is ever going to go to Iraq, so who cares?’

    The challenge of course is how to break this cycle. Unfortunately, if things like drug/alcohol rehab programs are somewhat analogous, it’s probably going to require the US to economically/politically ‘bottom-out’ and suffer some severe problems in order for a dramatic reduction in the military-industrial-academic culture to be effected, and then there’s no guarantee that there wouldn’t be a ‘relapse’. It seems like when empires arise, they seldom fall voluntarily or quietly (the Soviet Union being a recent exception) – - – Japan, Germany, England, France, Belgium, Italy/Rome, etc had to suffer protracted wars before their empires and bellicosity were reduced. Also, when the general population (like we in the US) is not ‘under the bombs’ and hasn’t experienced any war-time fighting on it’s grounds since 1812, war becomes an abstract, remote thing – - – something that’s ‘never’ really happened here. That, along with our reptilian brain core telling us to always be suspicious/kill-or-be-killed, and our ‘higher’ mammalian brain telling us to ‘protect the pack’, makes it all to easy for people (especially young men) to get swept-up in war-fever, just as they do for the big football/basketball/baseball game.

    • Well-said! And exactly correct. The lack of caring about war in the U.S. is a kind of reverse-engineering of conflict of interests. The Military Industrial Complex DID learn its lesson from Vietnam and how to end “Vietnam (anti-war) Syndrome” so people in the U.S. would embrace new wars.

  4. Coleen Rowley on said:

    “And let it fill the air. Tell them people everywhere. We the people here don’t want a war.” (“Simple Song of Freedom” classic by Bobby Darin http://youtu.be/sA3Cc5-Tqfw) I just posted Darin’s song on my Senators who have not yet signed with the 59 co-sponsors of SB 1881 (AIPAC-driven bill to scuttle Obama’s diplomacy with Iran). Also posted it on Harry Reid’s site as he should hang tough against the warmongers and not let the Bill come to a floor vote.