AMERICANS do not have the stomach for casualties,” said Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, dismissing an American threat to intervene in the former Yugoslavia. This is the one point on which United States policymakers and America’s potential adversaries can agree: In the face of mounting combat deaths and injuries, the US public will demand withdrawal from a military intervention before the US can achieve its goals.
This view is largely based on what is thought to be the “lesson” learned from the US experience in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It was embraced during the Gulf war by Saddam Hussein, who, realizing that his military forces could never defeat the US, sought instead to impose such great losses on the US that the American public would demand a withdrawal, thus allowing him to retain control of Kuwait. For Saddam and for Washington’s pundits and policymakers, the US public’s supposed intolerance to casualties appears to be America’s Achilles’ heel, hobbling US ability to use its military potential.
But the public’s reaction to casualties has been misunderstood. Polls show that public opinion during the Korean and Vietnam Wars did become increasingly “antiwar,” but not in the sense in which that term is generally understood. It is true that in both wars as casualties mounted, more and more Americans regretted the decision to intervene and became disenchanted with the way the war was being conducted. However, only a small percentage of Americans polled favored US withdrawal.
During the Korean War, for example, as American casualties rose, the US public’s approval for its government’s initial decision to go to war plummeted. Yet various polls showed the number of respondents favoring withdrawal fluctuating between only 9 percent and 26 percent. Since an average of 10 percent gave no opinion, these figures indicate that roughly 70 percent of the public was against withdrawal. Similarly, although the Vietnam War ultimately became the most unpopular in American history, in 1968, when opposition to it turned fierce across the country, polls showed that only 24 percent of the population wanted to pull out.
If, during both the Vietnam and Korean conflicts, the public was unhappy with the decision to go to war but was nevertheless disinclined to withdraw, what course did Americans want their government to follow? Surprisingly, and disturbingly, a majority of those polled desired US escalation.
IN Vietnam, for example, even though the majority of Americans did not see their own security threatened, more than 60 percent wanted to escalate the fighting and 28 percent wanted to do whatever was necessary to win, even at the risk of provoking war with China and the Soviet Union. Lyndon Johnson, who perhaps understood the public better than any other US president, knew that Americans hated him for going to war, but they would hate him more for retreating.
What Americans “learned” from Vietnam is that if the US is to intervene militarily, it should prosecute the conflict to bring it to a quick – and victorious – end. Something perhaps necessary but nonetheless terrible happens to Americans when they make war: They become ruthless. For instance, as the Gulf crisis escalated, the public increasingly supported any means necessary to defeat Iraq. A Gallup poll taken early in January 1991 – when military action against Iraq was no more than a vague possibility – showed that only 24 percent of respondents favored the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq if it might save the lives of US soldiers. A month later, however, just before ground operations against Iraq began, 48 percent approved of a first-strike nuclear attack, a position at variance with both US policy and international law.
Thus potential enemies misconstrue American response to conflict and casualties. That response should deter, rather than encourage, any moves that could lead to US military action. An adversary should understand that US public sentiment could push decisionmakers to escalate quickly and unpredictably beyond the limitations they might wish to place on a conflict. An enemy might thus find itself at the mercy of an impatient and ruthless American public.
But Americans should also understand themselves. We should remember that our founders warned us to go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” for fear of the monster we might create at home.