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War, Casualties, and Public Support

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In the forum of international politics, war is--for the most part--an acceptable instrument in settling disputes. For democratic governments, however, citizens have the power to influence their politicians, and it is necessary for those politicians to garner the support of their public by making the case of why it is necessary to engage in an international conflict. Once the decision to go to war has been made, it is important to maintain public support. Currently, the United States has been engaged in two lengthy wars with Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is presently in its tenth year, and the war in Iraq has been going on for nearly eight years.

At the start of both wars, public support for them was extremely high with 80 percent to 90 percent of people supporting military action in Afghanistan according to a Gallup poll taken in November 2001, and a Pew Research Center poll conducted in April 2003 showed around 74 percent of people favored the invasion of Iraq. However, as these wars have dragged on, support for them has drastically diminished. The latest poll conducted by CNN/ORC in November 2011 shows that only 35 percent of the public supports the war in Afghanistan and 29 percent supports the war in Iraq. The question has been raised: how does the American public come to support or oppose the decision of its government to engage in military conflict?

This question was first presented by John Mueller (1971) when he took on the task of analyzing public opinion in relation to how the American public came to support or oppose military conflict through analysis of public opinion poll data from the Korean and Vietnam wars. His results suggest that as American military casualties in a conflict mount, the public's support for the war diminishes. This has come to be referred to as the "casualties hypothesis" (Meyers and Hayes 2010). His influential research--along with the current wars previously discussed--has inspired a multitude of studies pertaining to public opinion support for war.

How, then, does the public receive information about military casualties? The most obvious answer is through media outlets. Citizens learn virtually everything concerning foreign policy through the mass media (Baum and Groeling, 2010). Conflict and particularly casualties are vital components of press coverage (Gartner, 2004). Berinsky (2007) argues that the mass public looks to prominent political actors as guides for their position during military conflicts. Recent literature suggests that the reporting of local casualties is more salient to the public rather than the reporting of national casualties (Altaus, Bramlett, and Gimpel, Forthcoming). Their study showed stories relating to local casualties were reported longer in duration as opposed to stories relating to national casualties. Additionally, their results showed respondents finding out about local casualties through alternative channels, other than local media sources, showed stronger opposition toward the Iraq war. Put differently, finding out about local casualties from sources such as friends and family had a significantly larger effect.

However, according to Hayes and Meyers (2009), the salience of local casualties covaries with time. The initial reporting of local casualties was shown to decrease support for war, but as time passed, the level of support was shown to rise. They demonstrated this through the use of survey data. Respondents were asked whether they supported troop withdrawal up to two to two and a half weeks after the news of local casualties were first reported. Their results showed elevated support for troop withdrawal. As time passed--20-24 days after the report--there was less support for troop withdrawal.

Alternatively, Boettcher and Cobb (2006) have proposed it is not only casualties that affect public opinion of war, but it is how they are presented. When domestic casualties are presented along with enemy casualties, the public perceives the war to be more successful than when domestic casualties are presented alone. In other words, the public will be less casualty sensitive when casualties are presented in a ratio. The same result can be found if the public believes that the war is "right" and the outcome will be positive (Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler, 2005).

Along the lines of the casualties hypothesis, it has been put forward that it is not the actual number of casualties



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