By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
"Americans have always held firm." So said President Bush in his Iraq-war speech Tuesday night.
But in point of fact, Americans haven't been holding firm in recent decades. And there's an underlying demographic logic to that softening, which Bush, as well as future presidents prosecuting future wars, will have to take into account.
Bush's speech will surely boost popular support for his Iraq campaign, but what's most striking is the steep decline in support over the last two years. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 53 percent of Americans now believe that the Iraq war was "not worth fighting" -- the seventh consecutive poll over the last nine months to show such a majority.
A further peek at the poll numbers finds that 69 percent of Americans view the level of casualties in Iraq as "unacceptable." And yet by historical standards, in the sweep of U.S. history, the Iraq casualties -- about 1,750 killed in the last 27 months -- are, statistically speaking, negligible.
During the Civil War, Union forces lost 360,000 men, out of a population of 22 million. Which is to say, almost 2 percent of the entire Northern population was killed in four years. Yet President Abraham Lincoln hung on to his support and was re-elected by a landslide in 1864. Of course, public opinion polling and television didn't exist back then.
But there's another factor, too: big families. In 1860, more than half the population of the United States was younger than 19. It's a cold fact that if there are a lot of kids around the household, it's easier to give some over to war. But the long-term trend toward smaller families has undercut this demographic "surplus."
Losing the home front
That's the underlying reason Americans did not "hold firm" in Vietnam, and why they do not seem to be holding firm in Iraq. Then and now, American forces were not in danger of losing on the battlefront. But the home front was, and is, a different story.
The first Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam in 1957. By summer 1965, total KIAs in Vietnam reached the same level they are in Iraq today. Yet four decades ago, support for the war stayed stronger longer. A majority of Americans didn't say Vietnam wasn't worth fighting for until August 1968, by which time some 30,000 American soldiers had been killed. So while Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War was one-hundredth as costly as Lincoln's Civil War, on a relative basis -- the 36th president, unlike the 16th president, was thwarted in his bid for re-election.
The percentage of children in the country was a key factor in these shifting war-presidency fortunes. By 1965, the share of under-19-year-olds had fallen sharply, to 37 percent. So in 'Nam, each combat fatality -- magnified, of course, by the media -- was felt more strongly. Today, the under-19 percentage is down to 27. Families that once had five or six kids now have a couple at most. Poll numbers on Iraq -- and plummeting enlistment rates -- show the impact of demography on the polity.
These long-term trends, and their political implications, were evident to one far-sighted thinker more than a decade ago. In 1994, Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., surveyed the U.S. experience in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia and concluded, in a Foreign Affairs article, that America had entered its "post-heroic" era, in which the public would have a permanently low tolerance for casualties.
In his piece, Luttwak considered possible responses to this new reality, such as recruiting more non-Americans, a la the French Foreign Legion, or learning to ignore "tragedies and horrific atrocities" when they occur around the world. In this Luttwakian scenario, the United States would need either mercenaries or a less interventionist agenda.
Bush, and probably most Americans, would likely reject both those options. In which case, the challenge to be faced is squaring a heroic foreign policy with a post-heroic demography.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service