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Americans’ view of recent U.S. wars: A good idea at the time — but now, not so much

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Bagram Air Field is being shrunk by demolishing large swaths of housing in order to hold roughly 13,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, who will remain in Afghanistan under a new two-year mission named "Resolute Support."

Maybe the question is this: How many wars in a row do we have to get into and then get out of with a feeling that it wasn’t worth it before we figure out a way to get into fewer of them?

ABC News recently refreshed a 12-year-long poll inquiry into the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Like pretty much everyone who polls on that general idea, it found that Americans, who once thought by a humongous majority that the war was a good idea, have switched and now rate the war “a mistake.”

ABC doesn’t use the word “mistake” in its question. It asks whether the war was “worth fighting.” But Gallup, which has asked the question 17 times since shortly after the U.S. invaded, does ask: “Do you think the United States made a mistake sending troops to fight in Afghanistan?”

Click here to see the trend line, which is really quite impressive. In 2002, the verdict was in favor of the war by 93-6 percent. That positive verdict dropped steadily through the years, and a year ago the “it-was-a-mistake” crowd finally surpassed the “no-it-wasn’t-ers.” So most of us who said at first that it was the right and smart thing to do and have decided since then that it was a mistake after all, blame themselves for mistakenly supporting going to war.

You can’t cross-examine a poll question to delve more precisely into what was the mistake, who made it and how.

On the other hand, Gallup has been asking the “was it a mistake” question about every war since World War II. The last four major wars all started out with a majority believing that it was a good idea to send the troops in and ended up with a majority believing that it was mistake to have done so. The polling about these four wars was summarized by Gallup in the same link from above (here it is again), but to summarize:

  • Korean War: In August of 1950, Gallup found that by 65-20, Americans thought it was worth it. By January of 1951, a plurality of 49-38 said it had been a mistake. The war lasted two and a half more years.
  • Vietnam: In August of 1965, by 60-24, Americans thought it was not a mistake to get involved militarily in that country. By October of 1967 a plurality of 17-44 said it had been a mistake. Supported eroded further from there as the war dragged until it ended in the fall of Saigon in 1975.
  • Iraq: The war started in 2003 with 75 percent telling Gallup that it was not a mistake. By June of 2004 it had crossed into majority-mistake territory.
  • Afghanistan, we’ve covered above. The combat phase of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been declared over, but the killing continues in both places and U.S. troops are still there and in harm’s way.

I asked Scott Keeter, director of research for the Pew Center, for help in thinking through what it might mean that the public keeps switching from worth it to not worth it, in war after war.

He said it was normal for support to decay as the evidence accumulated that the war would be futile, that the results that they believed would be forthcoming became less and less probable, that the leaders whom the United States had put into power in Iraq and Afghanistan were neither as friendly nor as competent as the U.S. leadership had led Americans to believe.

I also asked University of Minnesota professor Howard Lavine, who specializes in political psychology, for help. He replied: “I think Americans like clean, easily winnable wars. They also don’t like it when presidents start wars that can’t be decisively won in a reasonable amount of time. I think the public correctly perceives the war in Afghanistan as an unwinnable quagmire.”

My post on Monday linked to a long criticism of the futility of World War I by a Canadian writer named John Chuckman. As I read more by Chuckman, I came across his blistering summary of why he believes the United States gets into one war after another. It included this:

America’s neo-con faction has had its agenda adopted over the last few decades, that of freely and happily using America’s great military and economic power to crush those abroad who disagree with America’s arbitrary pronouncements, creating a long crusade intended to re-order the affairs of others with no apologies to them and no honest explanation to America’s own people who pay the taxes and provide the lives of soldiers.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2015 - 10:19 am.

    Chuckman is too negative–the goals of freedom, democracy and security for us and others are not “arbitrary”.

    There is the easily answered question–would we or the Koreans have been better off if the North Korean government controlled all of the Korean peninsula? North Korea has demonstrated repeatedly how unfit their rulers are to live in the modern world and how long hereditary delusion can be sustained.

    And while I am convinced that the North Vietnam government wanted a Communist country, I am not convinced that that was the wish of all, especially in the southern part of the country. But the country was the initial trial ground of a new world order of a rising China, a declining Soviet Union and a righteous US. The middle ground of communism and capitalism that is now present was possibly the state that might have evolved naturally, but is unlikely given the domination that China now obviously seeks in Asia.

    And simple obvious human-rights concern undoubtedly condemn Saddam’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

    So with these wars–what went wrong?

    Were the properties of easy, quick and decisive oversold? Is it easier to fight a war than to do the long-term shaping of political pressure and constant diplomatic engagement with the explicit goals of freedom, democracy and security? Or is that a naive approach? Would the US be any more resented for such a paternalistic approach in lieu of a military response?

    It’s all complicated before a war, it becomes even more tangle during the war, and the planning and support for a post-war is quite often neglected.

    But Chuckman seems to wrongly assume that all regimes and rulers have equal validity and the rights and lives of all in their country are rightfully subservient to their despot wishes without risk of judgment and consequences.

    The exact opposite is exactly why the US population buys into the wars.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/08/2015 - 01:34 pm.

    US goals and arbitrary pronouncements

    Interesting that the list of wars excludes “wars” in Grenada, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the many other places where US military has been deployed to protect “our” interests. Every war the US has been involved in whether called a “war” or not has been for the purpose of promoting freedom, democracy and “national” or “international security”. The public is always “sold” on the necessity for war to promote these goals whether the “enemy” is Iraq, Afghanistan, Grenada, Panama, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Vietnam or Korea.

    The problem has been that in virtually every case, the US achieves just the opposite result. How many dictators has the US propped up over the now decades since WWII? How many democratic governments have been overturned by CIA subversion or outright military intervention?

    Eric describes Chuckman’s assessment as “blistering.” It seems to me that it’s pretty restrained and mild compared to what he could have said about US interventionism.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/08/2015 - 02:19 pm.

    Every time this comes up people forget to mention…

    That in almost every instance the American people were subject to a coordinated and well orchestrated propaganda campaign. Another way of looking at this isn’t simply whether or not American’s change their minds as much as whether or not American’s realize that they were lied to.

    You can’t look at these wars and make sense out them without acknowledging the deception involved. To wit:

    Advisers reported in the late 50s that the French were fighting Vietnamese nationalists, not proxy’s for China. Yet the war sold on the “Domino” theory and Gulf on Tonkin attack that never happened.

    Likewise the various wars and counterinsurgencies in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa were struggles against local dictators yet they too were sold as “Cold War” battles against Soviet proxies. Castro for instance was NOT aligned with the Soviet Union when he first took control of the Island but was forced into that alignment by US hostility. Remember the Sandista threat to drive up and invade Texas?

    The first Golf War was sold as a fight for freedom when in fact it re-installed a dictatorship.

    Afghanistan may have made sense but it was so botched up that it ended up dragging on far longer than necessary.

    The level of deception involved in the Iraq War goes without saying.

    Nobody lied to the American in order to get them to fight WWII, we were attacked.

    Seriously, does it really surprise anyone that soooo much dishonesty and deception eventually undermines support for a war?

    The real question isn’t why we change our minds, rather the real question is why do we keep falling for these bogus war excuses over and over again? Part of the reason is that we never really acknowledge the dishonesty and deceit, we just kind of move on and pretend it didn’t happen like it’s some kind of collective denial or amnesia.

    So let’s stop pretending that these wars were in any way righteous, or necessary to begin with and then we changed our minds for some mysterious reason. We got duped into fighting these wars, and no one likes to be duped. The question is when we admit this and not get duped again?

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/08/2015 - 02:52 pm.

    Arbitrary pronouncements

    No, there’s nothing arbitrary about American Foreign Policy. The real reasons for these wars are not THAT hard to discover, and those reasons usually understood by everyone but the American public.

    Our Gulf Wars were about Oil. Our adventures South of the border were about economic hegemony and access to markets and resources by US corporations. Vietnam was about controlling a strategically vital area of the South West Pacific.

    Another background agenda has been to establish American dominance in general i.e.: “This is the price you pay for seeking an independent policy or national agenda”.

  5. Submitted by Jim Young on 01/08/2015 - 03:24 pm.

    What happened to Desert Storm?

    Interesting that the polls (and reader comments thus far) didn’t include references to the Bush I invasion of Iraq to kick Sadam out of Kuwait. Was that war too short to gear up for a Q & A by the polling people? Did they consider the misadventures of Bush II in Iraq to be just an extension of the Bush I war? Or did Mr. Black just leave that one out of his story?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/08/2015 - 10:08 pm.

      Neo-con fantasy

      Actually Desert Storm is an interesting War. It was the first major post Vietnam deployment, run by veterans of Vietnam who were deploying lessons learned from Vietnam. There were basically three main principles: a) Never deploy troops without a clearly defined objective for victory. b) Never deploy troops unless a clearly defined objective is achievable. c) Keep the deployment short. The longer a deployment lasts the more likely it will be that the unsavory and ugly realities of war, casualties, and death will erode public support. Almost by definition, deployments that cannot be ended quickly are deployments that unlikely to end in clear and unambiguous victory. Well, there was a fourth principle as well, always deploy with overwhelming force.

      It was a short war, so sort that bogus rational’s and deceptions were never fully exposed for most Americans. I think support for the First Gulf War did nevertheless deteriorate over time because the threat had been so obviously exaggerated and Saddam was left in power. There was considerable deception, Iraqi military capabilities were grossly exagerated, as was the Iraqi threat. The suggestion that an Iraqi military that was obviously overextended by any assault beyond 75 miles or so could present a threat to Saudi Arabia was always absurd. Iraq had virtually no capacity to manufacture is own arms in any quantity, and no natural resources beyond oil. Saddam’s army was poorly trained and equipped with obsolete weaponry. Yet the Pentagon and the media constantly compared Saddam to Hitler and Iraq to Hitler’s pre-war Germany as if the invasion of Kuwait was analogous to Hitler’s annexation of Austria. This was one of the best orchestrated propaganda campaigns in US history.

      The problem is that ironically the war was too successful. It went off so well that neo-cons who are prone to tentative grasps on reality in the first place drew all kinds of bad conclusions. By he time they got to the second Iraq war they’d decided that Vietnam and principles deployed in the first Gulf War were irrelevant. They invaded Iraq with no clear objective, insufficient force, and no workable time table. It was beyond hubris, it was nearly delusional.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/08/2015 - 03:54 pm.

    Who’s opinions matter?

    The opinions of casual observers and disinterested bystanders are based solely on press accounts and the opinions of those within their circle of influence and have zero credibility with me.

    Those who oppose war for ideological reasons or for reasons of self-preservation will always claim military action was a bad idea to justify their lack of support and/or testosterone. But that’s ok. We would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us.

    In 1968, right after the Tet Offensive, an attack that we ultimately defeated by the way, the U.S. opinion towards our involvement in Vietnam turned south, not because of events on the battlefield mind you, but because Walter Cronkite and the American press had determined that the war was over and that we lost. I was in boot camp at the time. What followed was an endless barrage of news outlets and stories re-enforcing that notion ad infinitum. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy and the reason I never trusted Walter Cronkite’s word again.

    The only opinions I value in such surveys are those of active duty service members or the close relatives of active service members. But of course, the Gallup poll is based on “telephone interviews conducted with a random sample of adults, aged 18 and older.” So we’ll never know how those whose opinions most matter stack up against those whose opinions don’t.

    Whether or not it was worth it can only truly be decided by those who were willing to fight it and the loved ones who waited for them to come home.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/08/2015 - 09:21 pm.

      The press wasn’t to blame

      Opinion didn’t turn simply because of Cronkite, that’s neo-con myth. American’s lost faith in the Vietnam War because year after year leaders lied about how well it was going. The reason the Tet Offensive ended up being a public relations victory for North Vietnam was that in the days, weeks, and months leading up the attack the American public was assured that such an attack was impossible. And in fact, even though the offensive itself failed militarily, it a tactical defeat, not a strategic defeat. The Pentagon was reporting that the VC and NVA forces were on their heals ready to crumble, while secretly preparing a request for another 200,000 troops. This crap had been going on for five years already and it would go on for another four.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/09/2015 - 02:53 pm.

      Not by a long shot

      Vietnam was an unwinnable war. When the Americans started sending troops to Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was asked what his reaction was. He shrugged, and said something like “They will leave–they all did. The Chinese came, and they left. The French came, and they left. The Japanese came, and they left.”

      I’m not sure if this story is true, but it illustrates the issue. What is significant about this story (or the thinking behind it) is that what the Americans viewed as a conflict lasting a few years was, to the Vietnamese, just another episode in a struggle that had been going on for two millenia (the Chinese first invaded Vietnam in 111 BCE). What was a few more years? The Vietnamese expected they would win in the end, even if it took more than one US presidential election cycle to do it.

      “The only opinions I value in such surveys are those of active duty service members or the close relatives of active service members.” Funny how the Founders disagreed with that sentiment when they drafted the Constitution conservatives claim to revere.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/08/2015 - 05:41 pm.

    More factors

    If a war were clearly unpopular at the start, it is much less likely that it would be fought at all. So the fact that the war did start indicates initial popularity.
    And as Paul U. alludes, the justification for the war usually suffers from more information about the actual circumstances.

    As usual Mr. Tester unwittingly makes a good point.
    The problem with the Vietnamese war wasn’t that it was unwinnable; it was that it wasn’t worth winning (no one ever found significant oil in the South China Sea).
    As it turns out, Vietnam has become a profitable trading partner of ours.

    And monolithic world Communism never existed outside of Marx’s imagination. China and Vietnam were historic enemies, as were China and Russia. Korea’s relationships with China were also mixed — for much of its history it was controlled by Japan, an historic rival of China and Russia.

    And of course the last conflict with enough support to get a declaration of war from Congress was World War II.

  8. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 01/08/2015 - 09:36 pm.

    war is a racket

    Just a couple of comments. History is anecdotal to Dennis. Only goes as far as the platoon. And the reason we no longer have a draft is to help make this mischief possible. Guys enlist for three square meals, to get away from dead end america, to be taught a trade, to escape juvey, to get a chance to be a man and kill people without blowback, and perhaps to make a career. Bad news is the military is not the greatest employer.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/09/2015 - 02:54 am.

    The main flaw in postwar American foreign policy

    is the notion that the United States has a right, even a duty, to remold the world.

    The trouble is, our government and military are lousy at it.

    Iraq is worse off than it was under Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan is worse off than it would have been under the Soviets. The Central American countries, except for Costa Rica and Panama, were badly in need of revolutions, and they remain in a semi-feudal state to this day, with the added element of a violent drug trade. Grenada was no threat to anyone. The Kuwaiti royal family was not worth reinstating (I may be prejudiced here, but I knew a member of that family in graduate school, and a more arrogant and all-around unpleasant person I have never met). The North Vietnamese wore down the U.S. military, but Vietnam is a major tourist destination and a location for the sweatshops that produce goods for Western corporations. How did overthrowing Aristide help Haiti, which by all accounts is as miserable as ever?

    I can see two reasons for these failures. One is that “protecting our (or anyone else’s) freedom” is not the real purpose of these ventures, no matter what poor gullible young American military recruits are told. Rather, our government officials act like twelve-year-old boys playing the board game Risk, always concerned about “projecting American power” and “protecting U.S. (i.e. corporate) interests.” They dream up a bogus humanitarian excuses to sell their interventions to the American people.

    Which brings me to the second reason for the failures: Americans, including politicians (perhaps *especially* politicians), State Department bureaucrats, and military strategists, are almost willfully ignorant of the rest of the world.

    It’s a dangerous combination, the world’s largest military by far coupled with arrogance and ignorance, and increasingly people in other countries find the U.S. to be rather scary.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/09/2015 - 07:41 am.

    Could it be, that people don’t see any value in our invasion of Afghanistan because Obama’s ill considered pullout in Iraq has allowed a nearly defeated Al Queda the time it needed to rearm, reinforce and emerge as a stronger, more virulent ISIS to wreak havoc in Syria and Iraq?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/09/2015 - 08:14 am.

      Your buddy, GWB, set the time-table for the Iraq withdrawal, didn’t get a SOFA agreement that allowed US troops to remain, set up and supported a divisive, non-inclusive government in Iraq, put the US in debt to the Assad Syrians by using them as the favored contract torturer for the rendition program, etc., etc..

      ……… 2008 George W. Bush signed the U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. It included a deadline of 31 December 2011, before which “all the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory”….

  11. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/09/2015 - 08:05 am.

    Earth is not a planet that has uniform freedom, democracy (self determination), or security.

    At what point does one react against those that act against freedom, democracy or security?

    Is every possible system from ISIS, Syria, North Korea to Sweden and Iceland equally valid? No objection possible to any of the repugnant positions taken by their leaders? Turn the head from the deaths that are the fallout of despotic regimes? Ignore the lives that are blighted by the restricted channels that the despot desires?

    “I’ve got mine–it sucks to be you.” Walk on.

    What a fine and stirring message.

    Human imperfection in the search of the perfect. The perfect reason to do nothing.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/09/2015 - 11:52 am.


    It’s a simple question really, by what authority do YOU claim to have the right to decide that an Iraqi child is better off dead than living under Saddam’s regime?

    The problem with this: “doing something” is that it kills people, a lot of people. And the people who always think all this killing is such a great idea, just walk away.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/09/2015 - 09:36 pm.

      I claim no authority to do anything, but one should not lose the painful awareness that there are a lot of people even in this modern world who, through the actions of their rulers, suffer mightily from the lack of what you take for granted.

      Is the only time one should take action is when their own interests and comforts are threatened? Are there no “red lines”?

      In no way am I defending the deaths of innocents, but you talk about an Iraqi child–was that Iraqi child targeted for killing? Really now, was that the specific purpose of that specific US action?

      Are you saying that the actions of ISIS and Boko Haram that exactly target non-combatants, women and children for killing are morally the same as the US? Should we then not care about stopping those actions because we are no better and the problem is far away?

      It is morally s

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/13/2015 - 08:57 am.

        Way wrong

        Neal, when you go or send to troops or weapons out to kill people, you ARE claiming authority and privilege to do so. Either you claim moral authority, or you are essentially evil. Sure people suffer in the world, but if your military action is just going magnify the body count and suffering you can’t claim moral justification. You don’t get to increase suffering and death by many magnitudes and claim to be a savior at the same time. Well, maybe you can make the claim, but people won’t buy it and support for your war will collapse.

        It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re targeting the child you kill, or the child died because of your military action, when you kill the people you pretend to be “saving” its a fail. This is a standard feature of international law and the US code of military justice. The idea that there’s some “moral” rationale for dramatically INCREASING levels of violence and suffering in order to stop violence and suffering is always a dubious claim. You don’t get to make excuses the unnecessary death and suffering you inflict AND claim moral authority at the same time.

        Some military actions are justified, but all wars are a moral catastrophe, there may be necessary wars, but there are no “good” wars.

        The point some of us are making here is that the vast majority of America’s war-like behavior in the 20th century, with few exceptions i.e. WWII, Korea, and Afghanistan, have been the product of deception and manipulation, not moral conviction.

  13. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/10/2015 - 11:12 am.


    Mr. Chuckman’s position on “we need to remember the past” maxim is ridiculous and equally ridiculous is his position on America’s involvement in wars.

    First of all, the article refers to wars of the last 70 years and neo-cons concept came to existence only 20 or so years ago. And second, all those wars were not about “crushing those who disagree with America” but many other goals such as containing the Soviet Union or fighting terrorism.

    I also wonder (along with Mr. Young) how come the First Gulf War was not on the list of wars in the poll. Is it because that would not fall into the pattern? And why weren’t bombing campaigns in Yugoslavia and Libya included?

    Sure, all wars gain support partially due to propaganda (the same as many other things governments do) but that doesn’t mean that they were not the right thing to do… By the way, in Grenada, the day of American invasion is a holiday.. And bringing oil into this is old and tired – I have never read about Bush getting richer after the war in Iraq (and of course there is no oil in Afghanistan).

    As for justification, America only needs to do what is necessary for its security. And when it does it, the world is also safer because America removes bad guys. As an example, the world is way worse off now than it was when America was the sole superpower.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/13/2015 - 10:02 am.

    Kissinger instead of Zinn?

    I hate to say but part of the problem here is articles like this one. The complicity of the US media cannot be ignored when it comes to America’s warmongering. I’m not attacking Mr. Black I’m just making the observation that in almost every war and it’s aftermath the mainstream/corporate media either plays a role in misinformation and deception leading into the war (Judith Miller and the New York Times for instance) or encourages some kind of mass amnesia after the war.

    Now I’m not saying the media doesn’t dig for the truth, or uncover the deceptions (eventually), but it’s always deja vu all over again when it comes to whatever hair-brained excuse for any given war an American President pulls out of his backside. The critical eye of the American Media has it’s own self imposed limits. War is treated like a natural disaster of some kind, something that just “happens” every now and then. Mistakes are made but there’s no systemic problem. So for instance it’s OK to uncover the various crimes of a regime, i.e. torture, kidnapping, massacres, illegal wiretaps, war crimes, etc. but it’s not OK to acknowledge the fact that a regime that commits these crimes is a criminal regime, even in decidedly liberal places like Minnpost.

    This self censorship essentially makes it difficult to connect the dots and see the systemic pattern. Here we have a look at public opinion that pretends we don’t know WHY the popularity of war fluctuates, it’s like the tide or something. this is the Kissinger-Zinn phenomena.

    It’s always funny when conservatives complain about the “liberal” media because such complaints ignore the considerable self censorship the liberal media impose on themselves. This same liberal media routinely interviews a known liar and architect of multiple policy disasters- Henry Kissinger, while marginalizing experts with established integrity like Historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010). (Minnpost reviewers don’t block my comment- it is a documented fact that Kissinger lied about the bombing and invasion of Cambodia and the US role in the overthrow of Allende in Chile. It is also a documented fact that those policies turned out to be disastrous for the Cambodians and the Chileans, this is history, not accusation)

    Kissinger offers a narrative of violence. People are violent and war-like, the world is violent and war-like. And the US just gets caught up in the violence despite it’s best intentions. We make mistakes but our intentions are always noble. We’re victims of our own nobility when we get into bad wars. This is demonstrable hogwash pure and simple. Kissinger doesn’t explain anything.

    Zinn spent decades pointing out the fact that people are NOT inherently war-like. He pointed out in war after war the fact that governments frequently have to resort to extreme deception in order to manipulate their populations into war. Populations are typically apposed to war until they are subjected to propoganda. Even Hitler had to resort to propaganda in order to build support for his aggression. Zinn pointed out the fact that even in wars like WWII support for the war was not unconditional or unlimited.

    Zinn explains these opinion polls while Kissinger shakes his head in dismay. For Zinn, a population that was manipulated into war with propaganda i.e. Remember the Alamo, Remember the Main, Remember the Lusitania, Remember the Gulf of Tonkin, The Communists are EVERYWHERE! etc. eventually realizes it was duped in one way or another, or at the very least realizes that the threat either wasn’t real or was hugely exaggerated. For Zinn it’s just history, and it IS just history.

    Our media by-and-large ignores that history time after time. They keep talking to Kissinger instead of Zinn and to the extent that they do that, they’re complicit in the manipulation and amnesia that enables US aggression. It’s funny, we brag about our independent media, but their frequently NOT independent when we need them the most.

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