By Lisa Leitz
The number and scale of national protests aimed at ending the Iraq War were significantly smaller beginning in 2007 than they had been in the earlier years and lead-up to the war (see Heaney & Rojas’s 2011).
While many in the peace movement remained active as the Iraq War continued for five more years, their political actions were much more fragmented and radicalized from 2007 onward. The diminishing size and scope of Iraq War protests contradict public opinion because it was not as though the war became popular among Americans in its later years. Instead while public opinion about the Iraq War became more negative, large political actions against the war decreased. In this essay, I examine how civilians’ distance from the Iraq War contributed to this contradiction.
Several polls have found that since the fall of 2006 over 60% of Americans opposed the war in Iraq. Beginning in 2007, the Pew Research Center found that more Americans wanted troops brought home from Iraq “as soon as possible” than desired the troops stay there until Iraq stabilized.
Comparing Gallup Polls on Vietnam and Iraq one finds that when asked if the war was a mistake, over half of Americans believed that Vietnam was a mistake beginning in the fall of 1968 while a similar pattern begins in 2005 for Iraq. However, Vietnam protests remained large through to the end of that war, and Iraq War protests shrank. Heaney & Rojas (2011) suggest that partisan politics can explain at least part of the reason the Iraq War protests diminished: many Democratic voters stopped participating when their party secured control of Congress in the 2006 election and the White House in 2008. This explanation leaves large questions about why partisan politics played such an important role in oppositional actions especially since the Iraq War remained unpopular among Democrats.
One possible (and likely partial) explanation for the decline in participation is that issue fatigue is more likely when a population is insulated from it. American civilians were “conscience constituents” (McCarthy & Zald 1977), protected from the financial and human consequences of the Iraq War[i]. Distance from the war developed because no draft or war taxes were enacted. Data from numerous sources show that in the war’s later years, it was not a major concern for most civilians, with few citing that war (or related issues of Afghanistan and terrorism) was their top concern after 2007. Even more startling, the Pew Research Center found that around half of American civilians believed at the end of the Iraq War that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had “little impact on their own lives.” The lack of impact can be traced in part to the significantly smaller deployed troop and especially casualty numbers during Iraq, which reduced that war’s impact on American’s consciousness and lived experiences. About one-fifth as many Americans deployed to Vietnam served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and at no time were more than 200,000 troops deployed in Iraq, which compares to the peak number in Vietnam that reached over 500,000. However, contractors, largely not U.S. citizens (CRS 2011), increased the true force numbers supplied by America’s Department of Defense[ii].
The limited relevance of the Iraq War in most Americans’ lives and political activities derives from the distance created in fighting a lengthy war with an “all-volunteer force.” Only Americans who elected to enter the military (for economic, patriotic, gendered, and other reasons) faced war consequences including death or physical, psychological, economic, or emotional injury. During Vietnam the draft resistance movement operated in concert with the peace movement. However, young Americans during Iraq (and their families) never had to fear a draft whether they decided to enter college, if they failed out of college, or completed their college education. Also, while the military drew people with a broad range of political opinions during a draft, the all-volunteer force is more Conservative and Republican than civilians. Also, the professional military force’s contracts obligated them to a minimum of four years of active or reserve service[iii]. By 2011, it was not unusual for military families to describe a servicemember going on a fifth or sixth deployment. In contrast, the majority of Vietnam draftees and enlistees served for two years in the military and completed one deployment that was shorter than many in Iraq.
My theory about what happened to the peace movement should not be simplified into two words: no draft. That is an argument easy to refute, especially since less than 1/3 of Vietnam veterans were draftees[iv]. However, a draft does reach more people than those brought into the military today. Rather my argument is about the distance between a civilian population and its military force—the greater the gap, the less likely one will see a sustained anti-war movement. The sheer (fewer) numbers of servicemembers used to fight today’s wars and their greater likelihood to live through events that would have killed past soldiers has also reduced the Iraq War’s impact on civilians. Civilian contractors, largely invisible to Americans especially if they came from different countries, were used in higher numbers during the war in Iraq than before in American history. All of these factors, and others I do not have space to go into, have insulated 99% of Americans from the consequences of the Iraq War. This separation from the immediate costs of war reduced American civilians from beneficiary constituents of an anti-war movement (as in Vietnam) to conscience constituents, whose mobilization is more difficult.[v]
[i] and the simultaneous war in Afghanistan and military involvement in other places
[ii] Today, while the military may have left Iraq, thousands of these contractors remain in security details for various U.S. and other officials.
[iii] With an additional four of possible service should the military decide it needed them, and the military did in fact use many people from this Individual Ready Reserve force.
[iv] However, many “volunteers” who joined were pushed to do so by the draft and the existence of a draft altered peoples choices about college and other plans.
[v] There are, of course, other explanations for diminishing large-scale political actions against the war that I hope others will examine, for example:1) The economic downturn reduced personal, foundational, and other resources from which activists could draw; 2) Many people believed (whether right or wrong) that ending the war was complicated and that Democrats were making good faith efforts to end the war in a safe and timely manner. The expansion of the war in Afghanistan and the way the Iraq War ended on a timeline negotiated under President Bush contradict this belief, but public perception is rarely reality when it has come to these wars.