Where Do We Go From Here?
The war on terrorism may last a long time. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the more conventional actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were probably only the first battles. Many more actions of both types are likely to occur in the months and years ahead.
The question facing the American public is literally, “Where do we go from here?” As a people and a nation, do we have the will to continue in a series of conflicts (to which there may be no end in sight) to preserve our way of life?
While causality rates, unless you’re one of the casualties, are currently low compared to many past wars, they have the potential to escalate.
One U.S. senator estimates we are losing “one dead American each day” since the war ended. This is coincidentally the same rate of soldiers killed in the early days of Vietnam. How will America react if this rate increases?
Part of the answer may come from our past wars. History is ever the predictor of the future, until of course the world changes.
One way to look at the question is to look at American public opinion, and American causality rates, in past conflicts.
Beginning with World War II, Americans have shown a high tolerance for casualties if they thought the cause was just or the conflict unavoidable. But even during that conflict, there were shifts in public opinion.
Between 1941 and 1945, support for the war varied by about 17 percent, from a high of 92 percent supporting the war in February of 1942 to a low of only 75 percent in February 1945.
Although it is a dim memory even to the oldest of us, our fathers’ and grandfathers’ war had its ups and downs in the public eye. To be sure, government commitment never wavered and the prosecution of the war effort remained largely unaffected by this shift. But it was there nonetheless.
Public opinion in other wars, percent supporting:
World War II,1941-45: 75-92 percent.
Korea, 1950-52: 39-66 percent.
Dominican Republic, 1965: 76 percent.
Vietnam, 1965-71: 28-64 percent.
Lebanon, 1983: 37-44 percent.
Panama, 1989: 80-82 percent.
Gulf War, 1991: 77 percent.
Somalia, 1992 21-81 percent.
More modern wars had more varied shifts of opinion. Korea and Lebanon were relatively unpopular. Eisenhower’s presidential campaign was largely based on “going to Korea” with the unspoken promise to find a way out of a war the American people no longer wanted.
Lebanon may have been the beginning of the view held by many in the Islamic world that if you can just kill enough Americans, the U.S. will go home and leave you alone.
Somalia reinforced that view with our precipitous withdrawal after the “Black Hawk Down” incident.
However, the other short but successful wars of the late 20th century were more acceptable to the public at large. Either the duration of Panama, Dominica and the Gulf War or our success in those conflicts allowed public opinion to remain relatively positive and its impact on government policy minor or non-existent.
Vietnam, however, seems to have been the watershed for the impact of public opinion on government policy.
Support for the Vietnam War, according to the Rand Corp.:
1965: 61-64 percent.
1966: 48-59 percent.
1967: 44-52 percent.
1968: 35-42 percent.
1969: 32-39 percent.
1970: 33-36 percent.
1971: 28-31 percent.
In the early years of that conflict, popular support for the war appeared to be at acceptable levels, with more than half the population behind U.S. actions in that conflict.
But this was a time of relatively low casualties and rather modest troop commitments. As casualties mounted and troop strength grew, public opinion changed. And casualties grew steadily.
Between 1961 and 1966, the average number of soldiers killed grew from over seven per week (about today’s level in Iraq) to over 200 per week by the end of 1967. During the same time, total casualties, killed and wounded, grew from about 35 per week to over 1,200 per week by 1967.
At its crest in 1968, American casualties peaked at almost 2,000 dead and wounded per week. As the casualties grew, support for the war declined. While the number of body bags coming back from the jungles was only one factor in the erosion of public support, it is the one we may be beginning to experience in the war on terrorism.
But there are differences between the two conflicts. First, the Vietnam War was fought by draftees – the sons next door. Today’s war is fought by professionals in a volunteer Army. They have families, bleed red blood, and experience fear and pain just like their draftee forbearers, but it isn’t quite so visible to the rest of us as it was three decades ago. Body bags no longer come back to neighborhoods; now they come to Army posts.
The other big difference is the Pearl Harbor factor. As in the popularly supported World War II, we were struck first. The population may see casualties as a necessary part of assuring that we are not struck again. How strong that resolve will remain if and when we are again attacked, remains unknown.
The nation learned a hard lesson in Vietnam: Don’t fight a war the people don’t support. Unfortunately, part of that lesson manifested itself as distain for the soldiers doing the fighting and dying. Hopefully, that part of the lesson will not be lost on the current generation. No matter what the politics, the nation must distinguish between the war and the warrior.
On war, a democratic society can have a myriad of opinions. On the warrior there can only be one: our respect and full support.
Dan Smith is an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College.