More Americans reject war as policy tool

Candidates, news media fail to recognize shift in attitudes, says Tufts political sociologist

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. Americans are rejecting war as a tool of national policy in unprecedented numbers, and this trend will have significant impact on mid-term elections and the next presidential race, according to Paul Joseph, professor of sociology at Tufts University and author of the new book "Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful?" (Paradigm Publishers, 2006).

"The public will now support military force only where it appears to be in the self-defense of the U.S. or against perpetrators of human rights violations on a massive scale," says Joseph, a political sociologist who has spent more than 30 years examining public opinion and its interaction with foreign and defense policy.

Joseph finds that 50 percent to 60 percent of Americans now exhibit what he calls "Type 2" opposition to war: They are less likely to accept war as its costs become apparent, but they do support war under certain circumstances. Between 15 and 20 percent of Americans are "Type 1" opponents, who reject war out of principle, and 25 to 30 percent are "hawks."

One striking indicator of this change is the treatment of photographs and casualty statistics. During the latter years of World War II, images of dead or wounded servicemen routinely appeared in major magazines. Today, images of military caskets or funerals are tightly controlled, and public tallies of those killed are discouraged. If the war in Iraq were being fully supported, Joseph contends, the Pentagon would be more willing to acknowledge the sacrifices of U.S. troops and their families.

"The effort put into management of the public implies that if the administration showed the war transparently, if costs were explicit, then the public would turn even further against war," says Joseph, who directs Tufts' Peace and Justice Studies program.

Public opinion ahead of politicians and news media

Remarkably, Americans are disconnecting from war without clear leadership from any political party, prominent public figure or mass media outlet. But Joseph believes that changing public attitudes have big implications for coming political campaigns.

"On security issues, there really has not been that much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans," he says. "There is a perception that security is a trump card for the Republicans. But I think the public is open to hearing a different message about how the United States can pursue national security and world security, another message about a revamped defense policy that is less reliant on the use of military force."

According to Joseph, the issue is not simply whether any major national political figures will recognize the growing tendency of Americans to be critical of war as an instrument of national policy. The question is also "how much space is there within the media to get sympathetic coverage" of such views. "It looks to me like the public is ahead of both politicians and the media in its willingness to be open to a different type of message," he says.

Joseph also offers insight into other timely subjects:

The American public's diminished appetite for war despite 9/11: "September 11 brought a wave of patriotism and initial support for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In five years, and without visible political leadership, the appetite for war has shrunk dramatically. The public has taken diet pills and is now undergoing war liposuction."

The impact of popular films like "World Trade Center": "These films put us in touch with the values, decency and sacrifice of ordinary people shown so clearly on September 11. But decency and defendable sacrifice are becoming harder to find in war itself. Wars must be fought with honor or they will lose support. World War II was fought with honor even though it was very messy. Iraq is also messy but without honor."

Truth as a casualty of war: "There is an old saying about truth being the first casualty of war. Winston Churchill defended this practice by saying that a 'cocoon of lies' was required to defend the country's 'essential truth.' But this contradictory approach will not pass close scrutiny. The loss of life requires accountability and transparency. If the core of government policy can't stand the public light of day, then it is not deserving of support."

The role of embedded journalists: "Embedded reporters have been around for a long time (only they weren't called that). World War II and Vietnam both had 'embedded reporters.' At least some responsible journalists embedded or not will want to cover war from the standpoint of soldiers fighting the war. Washington will sometimes like that practice and encourage it even as they also try to control it. At other times, the Pentagon won't like what embedded reporters are saying and they will try to control that as well. But good journalism requires a description and pictures from the battlefield."

Anti-war protests: "We have marches and protests that are at least as large as the '60s and '70s. Demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and New York before the Iraq war were larger than Vietnam era mobilizations at the Pentagon. But media attention is elsewhere so we 'don't see it.' The visibility of antiwar activism has changed not the size of the national demonstrations themselves."


Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's eight schools is widely encouraged.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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