Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts by Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver & Jason Reifler
Reviewer: Scott Nicholas Romaniuk
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This dense and well-written book by leading scholars on the sources of international militarized conflict and strategies for conflict resolution, is a model of theoretically informed political literature. As indicated by its subtitle, the scope of this work examines ways in which the contemporary American public decides on whether to support the use of their nation's military forces internationally. Contrary to conventional views, the authors demonstrate that Americans do not respond reflexively, and solely to the number of casualties of any such conflict. Instead, the authors argue that support for continuing a military operation, or commencing a military operation in face of mounting combat-related casualties is a function of the interactive effort of two underlying attitudes: expectations about the probability that the ascribed military operation, or campaign, will successfully achieve its objectives; and the belief in the initial ‘rightness' of the decision to launch a military operation. Within a cost-benefit framework, when it comes to supporting continuing military missions in while a human death-toll rises, expectations of success are of principal importance. Packed full of insights and synthesis, this work is a useful read for specialists and the interested public alike, and is an especially important read for policy-makers and military analysts.
The authors demonstrate that their argument utilizes the voluminous survey data that are now available on this subject; they make comprehensive and efficient use of surveys administered by others. Despite that the authors present axiomatic assertions on public response to military casualties, the underlying strength of this book is data from proprietary national surveys, which they designed and conducted from October 2003 through November 2004. This data, describing the results of some 8,588 interviews with adult Americans, represents the most extensive and detailed compilation of public attitudes toward war casualties to date.
The theories and investigations of a variety of other specialists are also considered as a means of constructing a literature-base around the issue of casualty tolerance and public attitudes toward war. The perspectives of Bruce Jentleson, Eric Larson, Steven Kull, as well as a variety of scholars including Donald Rugg, Hadley Cantril, Scott Gartner, Gary Segura, and Michael Wilkening are measured, and incorporated into this contribution. The views of the aforementioned scholars are contrasted against those of Karol and Miguel, Charles Moskos, and Charles Rangel and the authors found that their research identified expectations of success as the crucial factor in the public's attitude toward military missions.
A host of demographic factors are also presented, which previous research has shown affect casualty sensitivity. These factors are identified as: as race, gender, education, and age, with certain components tending to be positively correlated, and others being negatively. Existing literature on this topic is successfully deployed, and provides readers with a concrete empirical and theoretical context.
While much of Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler's theoretical discussion covers familiar ground, their points are very clearly articulated. They take-on a noteworthy salience in the context of the American involvement in the war, and subsequent peace-processes in Iraq, even as two fundamental logics drive American commitment to these processes despite the human costs involved in such endeavours. Useful measurement for understanding the constraints that have been set on how American military power can be wielded is initially presented. The authors correctly note that ever since the war in Vietnam, policy-makers in the US have worried that the American public will offer their support for military operations only if the human costs of the war - as measured in combat casualties - remain marginal. Americans cease their support for military operations that produce casualties, and voters ultimately punish political leaders who deliver such policies. Existing literature reinforces four key insights that serve as the point of departure for their study:
(1) Public attitudes toward casualties are very difficult to assess and may change over time.
(2) The public is not casualty phobic, but casualties do affect public support for military operations by counting as the costs in a cost- benefit calculus.
(3) A range of factors shape the elasticity of demand for military operations-the rapidity with which casualties might undermine public support in any given mission.
(4) While judgments are possible about public opinion in aggregate, in fact individuals respond to casualties differently.
The previous passage illustrates the clear language, and terminology, the authors present their readers. It also demonstrates that their focus considers some of the peripheral issues that not only affect the public (as a whole), but the multiplicity of factors that affect the individuals that comprise American domestic society. Thus, the analysis caters to a wide-range of readers who may find the subject matter interesting and applicable to their perspective of American public opinion - as external spectators or part of that public - in general.
The concept of casualty tolerance is eventually argued as being the most theoretically and politically useful measure of "war support" because it directly relates to the trade-off facing most Americans as they decide whether to support an ongoing conflict. The authors demonstrate the belief that casualty tolerance is critical to understanding public pressure to withdraw from ongoing conflicts. They use this concept as their dependent variable in the later sections as they present an analysis of public support for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.
A unique perspective on this particular domain of public interest is presented in chapter five, where a series of hypothetical missions are raised, including, in particular, the number of casualties the US would need to defeat the militaries of Haiti, Iraq, North Korea, and China, as well as instances of sending US troops against Indonesia (East Timor), and Yemen, and so measures of ex ante "approval" or "disapproval" of the use of force are more appropriate than they would be in the context of ongoing conflict. Although the authors could measure casualty tolerance for each of the theoretical scenarios of conflict, constructing the ordinal casualty-tolerance measure that was developed in previous sections of their work would add a large number of questions to the battery required for each experiment. Thus, they wisely chose to focus on ex ante "approval" or "disapproval" in the hypothetical missions as a way of maximizing the number of substantive questions and experiments that they could fit into appropriate surveys.
Having presented an examination of hypothetical scenarios of military missions, the suggestion is made that the US public adjusts its tolerance of casualties accordingly; that the public might deem as necessary a higher level of casualties in a conflict with North Korea than it would against Iraq, because the military challenge is far more daunting in the former. Of critical importance is the authors' insistence that technological necessity is an important condition that serves as a caveat for everything argued in preceding chapters. Drawing on public opinion data from other countries, particularly in Europe and Japan, it is demonstrated that systematic studies of casual sensitivity of the kind that have been done in the US suggests that there is a fair degree of commonality between US and European public opinions. Of equal importance however, is that this work makes confident claims only about the nature of American public opinion in the context of paying the human costs of war and avoids suggesting the US as a prototype of democratic publics tolerance to war.
From a research perspective two significant shortcomings may be identified in this work. The first concerns a lack of reference to resources available on existing ethnographic data, such as: Human Relations Area Files, HRAF - a strange omission for a study that deals with a military that comprises components from all measures of the ethnic-spectrum. Addressing other demographic factors in greater detail would have served to develop a clearer image of how the US military is comprised in terms of race, gender, education, and age, and to show how and why the American public responds to these factors as parallels are drawn in this regard. The second area of concern is the lack of historical responses deployed by political or military authorities in order to take action against issues raised as a consequence of public opinion, or discontent with respect to the human costs associated with military missions, especially those that have gone awry. Moreover, examples of how successful missions have shaped poor public response to government decisions to utilize the nation's military forces would have also produced interesting points to consider. Such deficiencies may disappoint interdisciplinary scholars, particularly those which focus on comparative analyses.
In sum, this contribution to the literature on public opinion's relationship to conflict in the contemporary political environment clearly exposes reasons for why the US public responds to American military missions the way it does. Far from being the final word on the subject, it is an invitation to other political scientists, social scientists, and specialists of strategic studies to further explore the public domain as it intersects with peace, conflict, and military operations endeavoured not only by the US, but others as well.