As a political scientist who studies the intersection of war and public opinion, Dr. William A. Boettcher III finds himself in demand as a speaker in the early 21st century.
Dr. Boettcher was the speaker on March 31 for the annual Gibson and Mary Anna Gray Lecture Series at UNC Pembroke. His topic was “U.S. Casualties and Wartime Public Opinion: Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The lecture series is funded by Dr. Gray and his wife. He is a retired faculty member and long-time chair of UNCP’s Political Science Department.
The North Carolina State University professor discussed the relationship between public opinion and war since the 9/11 terror attacks. Public opinion research fueled the findings for his recent book “Presidential Risk Behavior in Foreign Policy: Prudence or Peril?” (Palgrave Macmillan; New York; 2005).
“After the Somalia incident when 18 Americans were lost and their bodies dragged through the streets, a lot of the literature said America could not accept casualties,” he told an audience of 75 students and faculty. “Then, we had a direct attack on the U.S.”
Dr. Boettcher also cited the professional military for America’s newfound willingness to tolerate casualties.
“It’s transformed public opinion because ‘we’ are not dying,” he said. “War today is not shared; it’s a Southern phenomenon, an Hispanic phenomenon, a family phenomenon.”
As the Iraq War continued, public opinion shifted. Americans began to believe it was not worth 4,500 casualties, 35,000 wounded and billions of dollars. Even with the “surge” viewed as a success by the majority of Americans, the public continued to reject the war, he said.
War presents a difficult challenge for presidents who must “frame” it in ways acceptable to the public, Dr. Boettcher said. It presents a challenge for President Obama who must convince Americans that 1,000 men and women did not die in vain.
“President Obama will have to sell the War in Afghanistan for three or maybe as many as five more years,” he said. “Today, the focus of the war is killing the enemy to keep them from harming us.
“Obama has successfully communicated it as a war of necessity, while President Bush could not sell the idea of Iraq as the frontline of the war on terror,” Dr. Boettcher said.
Dr. Boettcher said conventional wisdom indicates that as casualties go up, public opinion declines. He offered wars in Korea and Vietnam as primary examples.
“So, how do people view casualties? How do we judge success in war?” he asked. “This is not war the way Americans like war.”
Tying casualties to a cause, such as 9/11, or convincing Americans that the war is being waged successfully is critical to shaping public opinion. Dr. Boettcher offered the example of “body count,” a subject he has studied and written about.
“U.S. casualties compared with enemy ‘body count’ was discredited in Vietnam,” he noted. “If you give people a yardstick, they will be more supportive, but it must be a very high ratio of U.S. to enemy casualties.”
Despite the military’s avoidance of “body count” terminology, it surfaced in the Iraq War, Dr. Boettcher said. “Our data supported this strategy of contextualizing casualties” even when it was no more accurate than body counts from the Vietnam War.
“It had a strong impact on public opinion, unfortunately, it did not make us feel better about the War in Iraq,” Dr. Boettcher concluded.
“The book on Afghanistan is still being written,” he said.
The scholar concluded that post-9/11 America is not as “casualty sensitive,” and success in war matters less than the goals of the war. He said Americans are willing to “defend themselves and punish their enemies,” but they are not as interested in protecting other nations or nation building.
Partisanship and leadership do matter, Dr. Boettcher said. Political parties and presidents can steer public opinion.
“I believe that presidents and leaders can change the situation and frame events to gain public support,” he said.
For more information about the Gibson and Mary Anna Gray Lecture Series, please call Dr. Kevin Freeman at 910.521.6447 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Freeman is chair of the Political Science Department and coordinator of the lecture series.