Sociologist says that Americans are becoming more peaceful
“Remember the Fallen Heroes” read the sign propped in a Duluth, Minn., storefront, followed by a count of the U.S. war dead from Iraq. The sign, said the Vietnam veteran who constructed it, was intended as a tribute.
Yet the head of a neighboring Army recruiting station asked the veteran to take it down.
The controversy over the placard in Duluth is recounted in sociologist Paul Joseph’s new book, Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful? (Paradigm Press, 2006). In answer to his book title question, Joseph says “yes.” Americans have become less committed and more skeptical about the benefits of military intervention. But few, if any, public figures are speaking to this sentiment. In fact, as attitudes have shifted, national leadership has become more aggressive in pursuing policies predicated on war, he says.
Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful? “examines the partial demobilization of society from war preparation and the conduct of actual war,” says Joseph, professor of sociology and director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program. For example, “support for the draft has declined, and war can no longer target entire peoples, such as the way that all of Japan became a military target by the end of World War II. There is also greater sensitivity to casualties than in the past,” he said. “At the same time, the techniques for securing war support have become more sophisticated. The book is structured around the collision between different forms of war opposition and war support.”
Tension beneath the surface
“For my book, the most interesting are those torn between war support and war opposition,” he says. “I’m not so naïve,” he says, to argue that Americans are becoming a pacifist people. They will support war in certain circumstances, such as the invasion of Afghanistan directly after the 9/11 attacks, or the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, when the administration was alleging that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Since that point, however, there has been great tension among the majority between war support and opposition, Joseph says. “Lurking beneath the surface of public support is the tendency to see the [Iraq] war like Vietnam—like a quagmire, a losing, failed effort.”
And the Bush administration, mindful of this, has put considerable effort into hiding the costs—both human and otherwise—of the war from the public and to equating “patriotism” with support for the military, Joseph says.
Take the “Fallen Heroes” sign in Minnesota. If the war were being fully supported, Joseph says, the Pentagon would be willing to acknowledge publicly the sacrifices of U.S. troops and their families. Instead, images of returning caskets or military funerals are tightly controlled, and public tallies of the war dead are discouraged.
“If the war were being fully supported, those caskets would be seen as sad, but necessary,” he says. During the latter years of World War II, images of dead or wounded servicemen routinely appeared in major magazines such as Life, he says. “The sacrifice was seen as necessary. We can’t do that now without the public going away from the [war] effort”—without cementing more war opposition among the Type 2 population, those less likely to accept war when its costs become apparent.
“I’m arguing that the amount of effort that has to be put into management of the public implies that if the administration showed the war transparently, if the costs were explicit, then the public would turn even further against war,” he says.
A different message
“On security issues, there really has not been that much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans,” he says. “There is a perceived knowledge that security is a trump card for the Republicans. But I think the public is open to hearing a different message about how the United States can pursue national security and world security—another message about a revamped defense policy that is less reliant on the use of military force.”
With the mid-term elections on the horizon and a wide-open presidential race just two years away, how does Joseph see these peaceful attitudes affecting national political campaigns?
“To me, the two key factors are whether any major national political figures will speak directly to the underlying tendency of Americans to be critical of war. Will they say the use of the military as an instrument of national policy is flawed? Will they consistently frame their arguments in that direction?
“The second question is about media coverage. How much space is there within the media to get sympathetic coverage if [a candidate] speaks critically of war?” (Joseph devotes considerable space within his book to examining the effect of media coverage, and types of media exposure, on public opinion.)
“It looks to me like the public is ahead of both politicians and the media in its willingness to be open to a different type of message,” he says. “I’m the first to admit, when I say ‘the public,’ that it’s certainly not a homogeneous group … but on the whole, the public is much more peaceful than has been acknowledged.”
Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at email@example.com.