Alonzo Hamby: Afghanistan and the public opinion polls

Roundup: Historians' Take

Long ago, I did a quick and dirty comparison of public opinion polls re popular support for the Korean War and the Vietnam War (from mid-1965 on) and actually came to the conclusion that support for Vietnam lasted longer, despite the vociferous anti-war movement that began almost at the beginning re Vietnam.

In general, I think, democratic publics recoil from sacrifice and tire of it over a prolonged period. (We must remember that, for us, World War II was a three and a half year episode. And Tom's point about the overwhelming drumbeat of propaganda [or public persuasion if one prefers], abetted by a cooperative media, is very important here.)

Still, I think something has changed in the last 50 years, not only in the United States but throughout the liberal-democratic West. Publics today recoil from war in a way unknown in the past. Casualty lists that would have seemed piddling by former standards now evoke horror. (Yes, I know that all lives are precious, but the generalization is accurate all the same.) The Obama administration's receptivity to the idea that demonstrable acts of war can be handled by a civilian criminal justice system is a particularly bizarre manifestation of this attitude.

The present climate is doubtless encouraged by Bush's invasion of Iraq on mistaken premises. All the same, it is interesting, even disturbing, that the same mood is carrying over to Afghanistan, the source of the 9/11 attack, and, among other things, creating all sorts of wishful thinking about negotiation with "moderate Taliban." And it seems to me that there is a lot of wishful thinking about "nation building" by advocates of carrying on in Afghanistan.

War is hell. But nations have to respond to attacks. It was in this regard particularly dismaying to see a New York Times op-ed column by an outside contributor a week or two ago that described 9/11 as a small event in the larger scheme of things. Sure. And Pearl Harbor was a pin prick. Is this where we are headed?

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