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.