Tag Archives: public opinion

No Draft, No Vietnam, No Outrage: Iraq War 2008

11 Apr

66% of Americans currently oppose the war in Iraq, yet there is little of the public outrage that spilled into the streets during the Vietnam era.  As discussed in a previous post, one explanation lies in questionable media coverage of the conflict.  Another factor is the lack of a Selective Service draft.  The draft was activated for the Vietnam conflict in December of 1969 with a birth-date lottery for men 19-25 years of age.  A protest movement that had been forceful and wide-ranging grew even more powerful as anti-draft demonstrations began in 1967. 

Today’s American Military is an all volunteer force.  Soldiers, sailors, and marines come from all areas of the country and, for the most part, all strata of society (although the very rich and very poor are under-represented).  Most Americans know someone who has served in the conflict.   However, a draft increases the scope of war beyond that of volunteers to the families of all American men between the ages of 18 and 25.   

If one is eligible for conscription or has a son, nephew, or cousin who is draft-able, perceptions of and responses to war are likely to change.  The conflict then becomes an active, harsh reality.  The engagement is suddenly tactile and palpable.  Simply, a draft brings the war into more American households.  At that point, “Whatever”  or “That’s a shame” can easily turn into, “Hell, no.”  Self interest is a powerful motivator.

In Farenheit 9/11, Michael Moore questioned members of the 2003 Congress and found:  “Out of the 535 members of Congress, only one had an enlisted son in Iraq.”   (Give Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson and his son credit here, as well as John McCain, whose son is also serving in Iraq.  At least he practices what he preaches.)  Common sense suggests “leaders” would be more wary of commiting troops if their sons and daughters were eligible to face fire.  Average citizens who oppose the war might be more inclined to take to the streets in protest if someone in their family was ticketed for Iraq via a draft.   And one can question if those in favor of the war would continue to be so if their children might be sent to fight.  The all-volunteer force allows a luxury of distance for those those not directly connected to a volunteer serviceman or servicewoman.   

That distance did not exist in the Vietnam era.  One-third of those serving there were drafted.  But another important consideration is the size and nature of the respective conflicts.  Vietnam’s reverberations through American society were much greater than we are experiencing with the Iraq war.  In 1969, troop levels In Vietnam peaked at 543, 000, over three times the highest levels in Iraq (170,000).   Over 50, 000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, with over 300, 000 were wounded.  In Iraq, the numbers are considerably less, with just over 4000 dead and 29, 000 wounded to date.  The war in Vietnam touched more American families in negative ways.  Publicly displayed opposition to that conflict corresponds proportionately in size and scope to that of Iraq.

Protests against Vietnam were widespread and often large.  April 15, 1967, 500,00 gathered in New York’s Central Park and marched to the UN to rail against Vietnam.   In April of 1969, 250, 000 marched to protest the Vietnam war in New York.   In November of 1969, 250, 000 demonstrators gathered in Washington, DC.  An April 24, 1970, another 200,000 protested in Washington, while 156, 000 marched in San Francisco.   2005 and 2007 protests against Iraq drew more than 150, 000 in Washington.  But the ferocity, volume, and effectiveness of protest in the Vietanm era was much greater than found today.  Just a glance at the archive of the UCal Berkely Libraary Media Resource Center  (the source of the above statistics) will confirm that.   

One fact remains clear:  The impact of the war in Iraq on the home front today is considerably less than Vietnam’s was in the ’60’s and early ’70’s.  This is reflected by a lack of publicly expressed outrage and civil disobedience.  Troop levels, the number of killed and wounded, the Selective Service draft, and media coverage all contribute to the difference.  There is less protest today, and the protest which has occurred has been ineffective.  The 2006 midterm elections, which were considered a referendum on the war and resulted in a stronger Deomcratic voice in Congress (gaining six senate and 29 house seats), has done nothing to slow down American involvement in Iraq.  In fact, the current “surge” strategy escalated our presence there.  

The American people have a voice.   But Iraq protests and demonstrations have been few and ineffective.  The citizenry spoke in the 2006 midterms and it proved to be a whisper.  The upcoming Presidential election will give Americans another chance to express their opposition through action, with clear choices cut along Democratic and Republican lines.  It may be the public’s last chance to effect Iraq war policy.   At the conflict’s current level with an all volunteer force, the Iraq war just does not generate the amount of outrage needed to fuel political change. 


Where’s the Outrage? Iraq and Public Opinion 2008

3 Apr

American public opinion of the wars in Viet Nam and Iraq have shown similar trends according to various Gallup polls, with American dissatisfaction growing as the wars progressed.    Of those thinking it was a mistake to send troops to the respective countries at quarterly intervals during the wars, Americans today are more likely to claim the action a mistake when compared to the same calender points of conflict during Viet Nam.  In fact, 66% of those polled this month by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation state that they are against the war in Iraq.  But while the citizenry is even more opposed to the Iraq war than at the same point relative to Viet Nam, there is little of the public outrage that marked the earlier conflict.  One rarely hears of demonstrations, protest marches, and college campuses in anarchy.  The Hangover asks why.   

While there are many similarities between US actions in Viet Nam and Iraq, the difference in publicly displayed opposition to the wars is clear.  The lack of protest spilling into the streets can be explained several factors, the foremost being a significant difference in media coverage.  (The importance of the lack of a selective service draft will be discussed in a subsequent post.)  

The Hangover grew up in the ’60’s and ’70’s.  The nightly news often consisted of photos and film of American soldiers, something that we do see today.  However, during the Viet Nam conflict, shots of struggling, wounded, and dead Americans were not uncommon.  They became a standard aspect of television and print news reports, as did pictures of flag-covered coffins returning to the country.  These images provoked a visceral reaction with the public.  Vice President Hubert Humphrey noted:  

“… This is the first war in this
nation’s history that has been fought
on television were the actors are real.
Where, in the quiet of your living room
of your home, or your dormitory, or
wherever you may be, these cruel, ugly
dirty facts of life and death in war
and pain and suffering come right to you;
and it isn’t Hollywood acting.  I’ve had
letters from mothers that have seen their
boys shotdown in battle …”

It’s one thing to read of soldiers killed by a roadside bomb.  It’s quite another to actually see the results in color on your 50-inch high definition Sony.  But that’s not happening.  Despite the instantaneous capabilities of current media technologies, the grisly, all-too-real aspects of the war in Iraq are not being presented to the American public.  The images of battle we were given in the ’60’s and ’70’s were less sanitized, more graphic, and as a result, more disturbing.   It is clear that they spawned action.  The Viet Nam war was something tangible and awful, seen on a daily basis.  Current reporting often makes Iraq seem like a far-away concept or a policy for debate.  That allows the conflict to continue.

It is interesting to note that the source of the Humphrey quote is a 1984 paper presented by Marine Major Cass D. Howell titled, “Television Coverage of the Viet Nam War and it’s Implications for Future Conflicts.”   Howell contends that television coverage inhibited the military’s operational effectiveness in Viet Nam by stirring public opinion against the war.   Although Howell’s main concerns point to a liberal media bias, he does recognize the importance of the content of shown footage:

“Not only is the amount of coverage selected for
broadcast a critical factor in molding the news, but the
type of news selected is of equal importance.  Television is
essentially an action medium and strongly favors combat
scenes over a dry recitation of facts and figures.  In
Vietnam this came to be called “shooting bloody,” a
preference for footage of dramatic engagements, even though
they were often irrelevent or uncharacteristic of the total

At the beginning of the Iraq conflict, we were shown “shock and awe” tapes of missiles and fighters lighting up the skies over Baghdad.  In film terms, those were “long” shots; they did not reveal human damage–more Space Invaders than the Normandy of “Saving Private Ryan.”  There is a twisted framework involved when violent, gore-filled war footage can win an Academy Award, but is deemed unfit for our television, print, or even Internet news.  It causes The Hangover to question just how free our free press is.

Major Howell concludes his report by advocating that post-Viet Nam wars need “Freedom from the Press.”  The television camera is a deterrent to victory and that unlimited media (television) access will cause America to “suffer.”  While The Hangover doesn’t necessarily agree with the restrictions Howell would place on reporting, he does make a thoughtful, valid argument.  Using the coverage of Iraq as evidence (certainly more facts and figures than anything else), it is not just lonesome bloggers who have read his work.  Those in power have heeded the Major’s analysis. 

Although reporters are now embedded with troops in Iraq, less hard news results.   War correspondents have complained of restricted access, lack of individual mobility, and an empathy and connection with their troops, which George Wilson of the National Journal said made him feel like “a willing propagandist.” Although a few firefights have made it onto American television, the overall coverage is nothing like what was produced in Viet Nam.  And that is the main reason our soldiers are still facing fire in a desert country in the midst of a civil war.

Physical civil unrest in opposition to the Viet Nam war became a part of everyday life in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  It was what brought our presence there to an end.  President Richard Nixon stated:

 “The War in Vietnam was not lost on the
 battlefields of Vietnam.  It was lost
 in the halls of Congress … in the
 editorial rooms of great newspapers …
 and in the classrooms of great

The will to fight the war in Viet Nam was eroded by public opinion that had turned into collective action.  Resistance was more than a letter to the editor, a post on a blog, or a sigh when reading the morning paper.  It was a hands-on, in-the-street I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!  Human nature might just dictate that Americans need to see twisted bodies, bleeding soldiers, and spilled guts before opposition to Iraq evolves into something that can affect policy.  It’s unforunate that our news media won’t provide those images for us–whether allowed to or not.