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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Hoffman, A. M, Agnew, C. R., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kulzick, R. (2015). Norms, Diplomatic Alternatives, and the Social Psychology of War Support, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 59(1), p. 3-28.
- People assume the use of military force is the last resort.
- When aware of nonviolent alternatives to war, people believe the price of war is too high.
- When aware of nonviolent alternatives to war, people are less likely to tolerate casualties and to support war.
- When political leaders unanimously support war, the public is less sensitive to the number of casualties.
This article provides scientific evidence that may prompt Americans to reevaluate the way they think about war support. The research looks at how participants respond to various war scenarios and measures levels of support based on whether or not they were made aware of diplomatic, or otherwise nonviolent, alternatives.
Past studies showed that American war support was more dependent on the perceived chance of ‘victory’ rather than the casualty count. This belief is unsettling, because not only does it give democratic leaders the leeway to falsify or bend the truth in exchange for public war support, but it can also lead to the use of more destructive weapons and battle tactics without fearing any significant upset come election day.
Additionally, when political leaders present a scenario where war is publicized as the only viable option, it often leads their constituents to assume that all other nonviolent, diplomatic options have been discussed, analyzed, and proven unacceptable.
The study examined two major questions:
- Does the failure to inform people of the alternatives to military action lead them to think the alternatives are unlikely to succeed?
- Does informing people of quality alternatives to military action lead to a decrease in war support?
The results showed that participants are much less likely to support war if they are aware of the alternative ways to resolve the conflict. After conducting a combination of public surveys, the study found when nonviolent alternatives to war are unknown or unappealing to the public, war support tends to be higher. Also, when nonviolent alternatives to war are available, but not mentioned, the public exaggerates their war support.
More specifically, the findings showed that (1) people assume the use of military force is the last resort; (2) when aware of nonviolent alternatives to war, people believe war comes at too high of a cost; and (3) when aware of nonviolent alternatives to war, people are less likely to tolerate casualties and support war.
The American public’s war support has been a hot topic in the media and political stage, especially concerning the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, ISIS, the broader Global War on Terror paradigm, and the recent debates surrounding the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. If more of the public is made aware of nonviolent alternatives to war and the political advantage given to war-supporting leaders by keeping these alternatives private, we can expect to see a drastic decrease in war support.
These are very important implications, especially with regard to the opportunity for those looking beyond war and refocusing their energy on promoting the various diplomatic, nonviolent avenues of resolving conflict while keeping the public secure. This article showed that when people are made aware of viable alternatives to war, the promise of a military ‘victory’ loses its ability to justify the social and economic costs of war. Thus, it is paramount that the public be made more aware of the alternatives to war in order to move forward towards a nonviolent future.
Given the fact that the public is less sensitive to the number of war casualties when their political leaders unanimously support a war, there is a tremendous opportunity for those opposed to war to broadcast the beliefs of likeminded politicians. By providing the media, policy-makers, educators and other stakeholders with the many alternative approaches to war which the peacebuilding field offers, there is a greater chance of enacting a change in the United States’ attitude towards war.
Key words: war support, public opinion, alternatives to war, war opposition