Paying the Human Costs of War : American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts
From the Korean War to the current conflict in Iraq, Paying the Human Costs of War examines the ways in which the American public decides whether to support the use of military force. Contrary to the conventional view, the authors demonstrate that the public does not respond reflexively and solely to the number of casualties in a conflict. Instead, the book argues that the public makes reasoned and reasonable cost-benefit calculations for their continued support of a war based on the justifications for it and the likelihood it will succeed, along with the costs that have been suffered in casualties. Of these factors, the book finds that the most important consideration for the public is the expectation of success. If the public believes that a mission will succeed, the public will support it even if the costs are high. When the public does not expect the mission to succeed, even small costs will cause the withdrawal of support.
Providing a wealth of new evidence about American attitudes toward military conflict, Paying the Human Costs of War offers insights into a controversial, timely, and ongoing national discussion.
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Princeton University Press
February 28, 2009
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Excerpt from Paying the Human Costs of War by Peter D. Feaver
THEORIES OF AMERICAN ATTITUDES TOWARD WARFARE
Perhaps the most important task that American citizens entrust to their elected officials is the decision to deploy the country's military forces in combat. In making such decisions, leaders place the lives of American citizens--and the citizens of other nations--in the balance. For decades scholars and politicians have sought to understand the conditions under which Americans are willing to support their leaders' decisions to use military force. In this book, we show that many conditions are important for shaping the public's willingness to bear the human costs of war, but most important of all is the public's expectations that the military operation will be successful.
Initially, scholars believed that the public was not capable of placing constraints on the use of force either because Americans would reflexively "rally 'round the flag" (Verba et al. 1967), or because their attitudes toward foreign policy lacked structure and content (Lippmann 1955; Converse 1964). Later work examining the reaction to the Vietnam War continued to see the public's reaction to the use of military force as reflexive and unthinking, but drew the opposite conclusion about the direction of that reaction, seeing the public as unwilling to tolerate any use of military force that resulted in even a few American deaths (Luttwak 1996; Klarevas 2000).
Ever since the Vietnam War, policymakers have worried that the American public will support military operations only if the human costs of the war, as measured in combat casualties, are trivial.1 The general public, so the argument goes, is highly sensitive to the human toll, and this sets severe constraints on how American military power can be wielded. Political leaders who engage in costly military ventures will face their own sure demise at the ballot box. Americans stop supporting military operations that produce casualties, and voters punish political leaders who deliver such policies. Indeed, ever since the rejection of the Versailles Treaty and the rise of isolationism in the United States, but especially since the Vietnam War, the conventional wisdom has cited public reluctance to bear the costs of global leadership as the Achilles heel of American foreign policy.2 The conventional wisdom is so strong that it is enshrined in Army doctrine and regularly invoked by U.S. leaders.3
In this book, we argue that the American public is more discerning and deliberative than most pundits and policymakers expect, and thus American foreign policymakers are less constrained than the conventional wisdom implies. Casualties do not produce a reflexive collapse in public support. Under the right conditions, the public will continue to support even relatively costly military operations. In a similar way, casualties are not as toxic for public support of the president as popularly believed; combat deaths do not translate directly into political death. To be sure, the public is not indifferent to the human costs of American foreign policy, but the constraints placed by American public opinion are not as limiting as popularly believed. Instead, the public appears to take a reasonably levelheaded cost-benefit approach in forming attitudes toward military missions.
Our central argument is that--within this cost-benefit framework-- when it comes to supporting an ongoing military mission in the face of a mounting human toll, expectations of success matter the most. Many factors--the stakes, the costs (both human and financial), the trustworthiness of the administration, the quality of public consensus on the foreign policy goal in question, and so on--affect the robustness of support. But the public's expectation of whether the mission will be successful trumps other considerations. When it comes to voting on a president who has led the country into a costly war, the relative weights of factors shift; expectations of success still matter, but the most important factor appears to be whether the public views the initial decision to start the war as correct.
Of course, actual success, let alone perceptions of success, are not entirely under the control of policymakers; nor are public judgments about the rightness or wrongness of the initial resort to military force. The president has neither a free hand nor a blank check. But the image of the American public as a paper tiger--a mirage of strength that collapses in the face of casualties--is as incorrect as it is popular.
We show that our argument makes the best sense of the voluminous survey data that are now available on this subject. We make wide-ranging use of surveys administered by others, but the centerpiece of our book is data from proprietary national surveys that we designed and conducted from October 2003 through November 2004. These data, representing the results of some 8588 interviews with adult Americans, are an unmatched resource of information, the most extensive and detailed compilation of public attitudes toward casualties of which we are aware. The coincidence of our field research with the ongoing war in Iraq provided an unprecedented, albeit tragic, opportunity to gauge public attitudes toward casualties as events on the ground evolved--and also allowed us to reshape our research focus accordingly.
Indeed, it is impossible to investigate a topic like this today without having the ongoing conflict in Iraq uppermost in mind, and we do look very closely at public opinion on the Iraq war. Concern, however, for what might be called "the public's stomach for costly military action" predates the Iraq war (as does our initial research design).
The issue, in fact, is as old as the Republic. General George Washington and the Continental Congress worried about the willingness of the American colonists to continue to pay the costs of war with Britain. "There is a danger," the general wrote to the Congress, "that a commercial and free people, little accustomed to heavy burdens, pressed by the impositions of a new and odious kind, may not make a proper allowance for the necessity of the conjuncture, and may imagine that they have only exchanged one tyranny for another."4 President Lincoln likewise confronted the issue in the Civil War. From Lincoln's vantage point, the mounting human toll of the war seemed on a collision course with the 1864 election.5 His concerns seemed justified, moreover, in light of the impact that war casualties had on Republican candidates in the 1862-63 midterm elections.6 President Wilson spoke eloquently about the wastefulness of war, opining that "never before have the losses and the slaughter been so great with as little gain in military advantage."7 The terrible human toll of World War I left what one scholar called a "dark shadow" on the American public, and enshrined the "casualty issue" as a crucial constraint on American foreign policy.8 Concern over casualties drove U.S. efforts in the 1930s to avoid involvement in another major European war, and shaped the way the war was ultimately fought.9 Of course, World War II proved to be the bloodiest American war (not counting the Civil War) and, compared with every military operation since, World War II is held up as the exceptional instance of the American public having a strong stomach for war. At the time, however, President Roosevelt and his military commanders worried greatly about public casualty tolerance and went to extraordinary lengths to manage the public's reception of adverse news.10 On the other side, both Adolf Hitler and Japanese leaders were convinced that the ethnic composition of the American public, and the democratic government's responsiveness to that public, meant that the economic and military potential of the United States would not be realized in combat; the United States might look tough on paper but, once bloodied, it would collapse.11
Concern over the public's tolerance for casualties was arguably a defining feature of the major military operations of the Cold War: Korea and Vietnam. Vietnam, in particular, is remembered as the war that established beyond dispute that the American public will not support a "long and bloody conflict in a faraway land," as one North Vietnamese leader put it.12 Each of the leaders who brought the United States into these wars saw his political headaches multiply with the mounting combat toll, and each was denied a second term as a result. America's enemies drew the predictable inference about the United States: In the words of Chairman Mao, "[I]n appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger."13 Vietnam thus raised the question, "Why do big nations lose small wars," and the answer lay in the difficulty of sustaining popular support in the face of mounting costs.14
Since Vietnam, of course, the issue has only grown in prominence. The hasty exodus from Beirut after the tragic Marine barracks bombing in October 1983, the hasty retreat from Somalia after the infamous "Black Hawk Down" Ranger raid in October 1993, the force protection mind-set in the Bosnia and Kosovo missions--all reflect a conventional wisdom that the American public will reflexively turn on any military mission that involves a human toll. Political leaders' fears of public casualty phobia further help explain decisions against U.S. military intervention in such places as Rwanda, Congo, or Sudan. Edward Luttwak summarized the conventional wisdom well: "The prospect of high casualties, which can rapidly undermine domestic support for any military operations, is the key political constraint when decisions must be made on which forces to deploy in a crisis, and at what levels."15 The Weinberger/Powell doctrine further enshrined the view that public support for military operations was a scarce resource--difficult to mobilize and easy to lose.16 The view that public resolve was easily overcome was further reinforced by the fact that three influential groups bought into the idea: determined enemies of the United States, media elites, and policymakers. Thus, Saddam Hussein premised his strategy in the first Gulf war on the idea that casualties would defeat the U.S. popular will, even if it did not defeat the military.17 Slobodan Milosevic knew that he could not directly defeat NATO's military might in the Kosovo war, but believed that inflicting even modest attrition on NATO forces would be sufficient to prevail politically.18 And in his infamous November 1996 fatwa, Osama Bin Laden quite explicitly invoked American casualty phobia in Somalia as evidence for his strategic premise that the United States could be defeated with only a relatively modest level of damage: "[W]hen tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you. Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal."19 As Steven Kull and I. M. Destler show persuasively, American media elites and policymakers agreed.20