President Obama and supporters of an American strike on Syria have characterized negative American public opinion as “war-weariness.” They are trying to overcome it with exhortations about America’s special responsibility, or America’s credibility, or the president’s credibility, or the terribleness of the fighting there. The public isn’t buying it, and thus far, neither is much of Congress.
Americans are not “war-weary” because most are neither at war nor related to people at war. They are, however, wary of war in Syria because a) Syria, although a rotten dictatorship, has not attacked the United States; b) the Obama administration has not laid out a military plan with achievable objectives; c) they don’t trust the government to carry out a strike that will have a salutary effect on the situation; and d) they believe a strike may carry consequences to the U.S. that would require further military action and further potential casualties.
In all these, they are correct.
Germany occupied Holland in March 1940. After four years of war, in the winter of 1944-45, there was a short but severe famine; average caloric intake dropped from 1,500 to 700 calories/day, and people ate tulip bulbs and bark. The most ferocious part of the London Blitz spanned September 1940 through May 1941, killing 40,000 civilians and seriously injuring another 46,000; more than a million homes were destroyed or damaged — and the war still had four years to go. By VE Day, 62,000 British civilians had died. More than ten million Soviet civilians died too, as did six million Jews of various nationalities, 700,000 German civilians, 5.7 million Poles, and 140,000 Greeks. An estimated 48 million soldiers and civilians in total died — along with the corresponding destruction of homes, family and social networks, businesses, and a way of life.
Even Americans, relatively insulated on the North American continent, lived through the deployment of 16 million fathers, sons, and brothers (in a relatively small population of 136 million people), 400,000 of whom did not return, and many hundreds of thousands returned less than whole. Rationing, shortages, and blackouts on the coasts added to their stress.
After two atomic bombs, the earth itself could reasonably be said to have been “war-weary” by 1945.
The American part of the Vietnam War ran 11 years, from 1964-1975. During that time, 2,215,000 men were drafted into a military that totaled 8,744,000 from a pool of approximately 27 million over the years. Of those, 3.4 million went to Southeast Asia; most draftees went once. Young men spent years worried about their draft status and the arbitrariness of selection. More than 58,000 Americans were killed and 303,644 wounded in the war. The Vietnam War looms very large in American thinking, because it was fought as a political matter as well as a military operation. Riots in American cities, the decision of President Johnson not to run in 1968, running college battles between draft-dodgers vs. inductees, and violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention all contributed to the sense that the country was fraying. Vietnam colored race relations as well as political relations, although, contrary to Rep. Charlie Rangel, who still insists that poor African-American men were the disproportionate victims of the war, 86% of the U.S. casualties were Caucasian, 12.5% were African American, and 1.2% “other.”
“War-weary” could have applied to Americans by the end of 1974.
The draft is long ago and far away; the All Volunteer Force (AVF) was instituted in 1974. Today’s military is 74.6% white, 17.8% black, and 7.6% Hispanic; more than 92% graduated high school, and 89.3% of officers have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. And all of them chose to be there. Approximately 2.3 million service members served in Iraq and Afghanistan; nearly half of them had more than one deployment. In a country of 311 million people, it is a small percentage. Across the country, 6,668 families have buried their fallen sons and daughters, and there are more than 32,000 families caring for the long-term physically and emotionally wounded. They are weary.
Other Americans are rightly wary.
The president received a resounding “no” from the United Nations, in which he had originally placed sole legitimacy for American military operations abroad. At the G-20 summit, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon repeated his admonition that war in Syria without U.N. approval would violate international law. America’s best friends and worst adversaries — the British, Russians, and Chinese, respectively — are opposed. Liberal Democrats and Libertarian Republicans are united in opposition. And over the weekend, a damning story by Reuters noted that the U.S. has been unable to provide a chain of command within the Syrian government for the attack, and American and allied sources said, “As more information has been collected and analyzed, early theories about the attack have largely been dismissed.”
Americans can be convinced to do great things, including great military and humanitarian things. But they remain unconvinced that this particular thing — a limited strike against Syrian assets — will have the positive outcome the president promises without the negative outcome they fear.