What Do Americans Think About War?

What Do Americans Think About War?

It’s hard to remember now that it’s over, but the war in Afghanistan was overwhelmingly popular when it began. 

Merely a week after Sept. 11, then-president George W. Bush signed a joint resolution from Congress authorizing the use of force against those responsible, and the U.S. and British, with international support, began bombing Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces Oct. 7. The American public almost universally approved this rush to war: A Gallup poll conducted soon after found that 90 percent supported the war and only 5 percent opposed it. 

The circumstances, of course, were very particular: There had been an attack on American soil. When Bush’s war on terror expanded to Iraq in 2003, more Americans questioned the reasoning behind going to war — skepticism that turned out to be justified — and there were high-profile protests against the Bush administration, but still an overwhelming majority supported the effort: About 76 percent approved and 20 percent disapproved, according to Gallup.

With time, though, both wars became less popular. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last August, after the U.S. had fully withdrawn from the country, found that a majority of Americans supported the decision to leave Afghanistan, even as a plurality thought the Biden administration had handled the withdrawal badly, while a July 2021 Gallup poll found that 47 percent of Americans thought the war had been a mistake. Many younger Americans had grown up entirely during the war’s 20-year duration and so hadn’t formed an opinion at the war’s inception, while many older Americans had changed their minds as its costs multiplied over time.

Now, as the U.S. faces the question of how involved to be in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we can look back at these experiences of war, still not fully reckoned with, and consider how they might have shifted Americans’ understanding of the role U.S. foreign policy plays around the world. 

To begin with, Americans seem more skeptical of more recent wars than those of the past. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, World War II was the most recent war in which a majority of Americans, about two-thirds, said the United States’ role was at least “somewhat” justified. Respondents said America’s role was less justified in every subsequent war the pollster asked about, with America’s involvement in Vietnam representing a low point of support, at just 22 percent. But of course, these assessments are made in hindsight, when the costs, successes and failures have been made clear.

There are a few other hints that the American public may be war weary, though. In 2017, Gallup asked Americans whether they approved of the airstrikes the Trump administration launched against Syria because of its use of chemical weapons; only 50 percent approved, a relatively low number. Sixty percent of Americans had approved of previous actions against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria in 2014, although only 47 percent of Americans approved of actions taken against Libya during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Before that though, a majority of Americans in Gallup’s polling on the question, which goes back to the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, supported American military force, especially once the president had taken action. “Americans weren’t really enthusiastic about going into other countries after the other engagements we’ve had recently,” said Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup’s senior editor.

The Iraq War may have made a lasting impression on whether the U.S. should attack a country preemptively: In 2020, 65 percent told Gallup that the U.S. shouldn’t attack unless it was attacked first, up from a range of 51 to 57 percent when the question was asked from 2002 to 2006, according to Jones.

But it’s also true that Americans support defending their allies against nations they see as threats, according to a recent survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “What a lot of people always assume about the American public is that the American public is isolationist, is tired of wars and doesn’t want to get involved in the world, especially not militarily,” said Dina Smeltz, a senior fellow on public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq haven’t dulled support for military involvement. “Instead of seeing a shrink back from getting involved, especially when there’s an ally involved, we’ve actually seen somewhat of an increase in support for using the military,” Smeltz said. 

So far, Americans broadly back economic sanctions against Russia, but fall short of supporting military action. A recent CBS/YouGov poll found that 82 percent of Americans were worried that the war could spread to the rest of Europe, but 71 percent were against sending troops. Americans also told CBS/YouGov that they wanted Biden to address the situation in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, even more so than the pandemic and the economy. And Biden spent over 10 minutes at the beginning of his address on the crisis, saying that the American people stood with Ukraine and promising forceful action against Russia, including continued economic sanctions and creating a Department of Justice task force to pursue action against Russian oligarchs. “But let me be clear: Our forces are not engaged and will not engage in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine,” he added. “Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine, but to defend our NATO allies in the event that Putin decides to keep moving west.”

Typically, several factors determine the level of American support — whether the nation we’d theoretically be fighting against is seen as a threat to American interests, whether we’re allies with the country we’d be supporting and whether respondents feel the war would be successful with few casualties, Smeltz said. Americans see Russia as a threat and Ukraine as an ally, but it seems that many Americans think a war with Russia would not be quick and easy, which could explain many Americans’ hesitancy over sending troops.

Americans also typically support actions like diplomacy and air strikes more than sending troops to war. Other factors, like where in the world a conflict is, or which party the sitting president belongs to, don’t register as important in polls, Smeltz said. 

But whether and how Americans favor U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts aren’t the only lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq. Tanisha Fazal, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, said modern military medicine has also altered how we should calculate the cost of war. More soldiers are surviving battlefield injuries, but they’re coming home wounded. Fazal said that hasn’t changed how most Americans think about sending troops abroad — except for people who are caretakers of those who came home wounded. “They know that they’re going to be paying the cost of war,” she said. 

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