Winning Hearts and Minds at Home

By Colonel Mark F. Cancian, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

The QDR of 2010 is very much a Gates product. It emphasizes counterinsurgency and support for the conflicts the nation is in today, and endorses the redirection of effort that Secretary Gates has been making since taking office. The key force-structure building blocks are long-term stability operations, albeit with a recognition of "deterring and defeating major regional aggressors."

To execute that strategy the Army expanded to 73 combat brigades (active and reserve); the Marine Corps grew to four fully manned divisions (active and reserve); the Air Force vastly expanded its ISR forces; and the Navy increased its littoral capabilities. But therein lies the problem: The long, irregular warfare that justifies such a transformed force is exactly the kind of conflict the public is now least willing to endorse. And where public opinion goes, political support follows. Military leaders thus face the same daunting task that loomed after the Vietnam War: Persuading a nation to support a large, expensive military when public backing for its rationale has soured.

"Three Years and Out"

Since the Vietnam War it has become commonplace to observe that "the American people give their government and military approximately three years to win or show tangible results. After that, public support for further military effort flags to the point where withdrawal is inevitable." 1 That pessimistic assessment comes from analysis of public-opinion polls, which indicate that "as casualties mount, support decreases," and there is nothing a President can do to reverse the inexorable trend. 2

Figure 1 (Was Sending Troops a Mistake?) makes such a conclusion inescapable. 3 In the three major conflicts of the past half-century public support has shown a pattern of erosion despite the vigorous efforts of Presidents to sustain that support. (Korea's small uptick in support near the conflict's three-year mark occurred when truce talks seemed likely to end the war.)

Of course, polls are not destiny. Presidential leadership can try to shape public opinion, at least in the short term. President George W. Bush went into "campaign mode" during his second term to turn around deteriorating public support for the war in Iraq. Further, he bucked adverse polls in ordering the surge. Militarily, the surge succeeded spectacularly. Politically, it was disastrous for his public standing—his favorability ratings sank to all time lows—and for the electoral fortunes of his party, which subsequently lost control of both Congress and the White House. Eventually, politics follows the polls.

Afghanistan: The Exception That Wasn't

Afghanistan was supposed to be different. Because the 9/11 attacks had been planned there, intervention was viewed as necessary. The harsh and oppressive nature of Taliban governance de-legitimized its regime. Our allies were more enthusiastic. The United Nations provided strong support through its resolutions, and NATO contributed a military headquarters. Opponents of the war in Iraq were particularly vocal in contrasting the "good war" in Afghanistan with the "bad war" in Iraq.

In the end none of that really mattered. Public support for operations in Afghanistan has eroded continuously, even among those who saw it as the "good war." 4

So, what happened?




  • It was not a true "war of necessity"—a loose term for "justified war." Taken literally, however, a war of necessity requires an existential threat, such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. The Taliban, though dangerous in its foreign policy and contemptible in its domestic policy, does not rise to that level. None of the conventional wars currently foreseen by either the Department of Defense in its official planning scenarios, or by the legions of national security commentators, will be a true war of necessity.



  • All wars are well-justified initially, but the justification wears thin as the years drag on. Recent U.S. wars have all begun with highly visible expressions of political support. Korea, for example, had several U.N. resolutions and presidential declarations. Vietnam had the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Desert Storm, followed by Iraq and Afghanistan, all had congressional votes authorizing the use of force. Thus, the political establishment fully endorsed going into those conflicts, and initial public support was strong: Korea, 75 percent; Vietnam, 75 percent; Iraq, 70-plus percent; and Afghanistan, 90-plus percent.



  • The international community did not have the resilience expected. In general, Americans—particularly on the left—find affirmation in U.N. resolutions, NATO commitments, and coalition partnerships. Those provide validation that the U.S. is "playing by the rules" and not pursuing narrow self-interests. The conflict in Afghanistan had all those requisites. However, European publics turned out to be deeply pacifist and soured on the war even faster than the U.S. public. Many thought they had been conned into believing that their troops were joining a peacekeeping operation, not a war. The Dutch already have withdrawn, and the Canadians have set a withdrawal date. Sixty-four percent of French voters and 62 percent of Germans believe their countries should withdraw from Afghanistan. 5 President Barack Obama's "charm offensive" in the spring of 2009 elicited strong rhetorical support—but few troops. Outside Europe, few countries have the resources to provide military forces of any size. The United States is thus increasingly alone.



  • Long wars are not continuously successful. That's what makes them long. Some observers, looking at the polling data on Vietnam and Iraq, have suggested that Americans would support successful wars. The problem, they argue, was lack of competent leadership, not lack of public resilience. 6 But that is a circular argument. If a war is continuously successful, it will be short. The fact that it is long means that there have been failures and defeats. The latter are almost inevitable in any war, particularly those against insurgencies, which typically take a decade or so to defeat. 7
  • Long duration is a particular problem with insurgencies and irregular conflicts because progress is difficult to measure. Conventional conflicts have battle lines and casualty figures to identify success; irregular warfare has only gradual shifts in security, population loyalty, and competence of the indigenous government—all difficult to gauge with accuracy. Everyone recognizes that insurgencies do not end with surrender ceremonies on the deck of a battleship, but that does not prevent commentators from continuously asking "Are we there yet?" or complaining about "quagmires."




  • Finally, success in a long war does not bring public support. Once the public tires, it wants disengagement. Military and political success with the surge in Iraq has brought no significant increase in public support. A majority of the American public (52 percent) now believes that long-term stability in Iraq is "very or somewhat likely," a huge improvement since June 2007, when 77 percent thought the war was going badly. Nevertheless, support for a long-term presence is gone: By late 2009 one-third of the public still wanted U.S. troops out immediately (within one year) and another third wanted them out within two years. 8
  • The same phenomenon was seen with the United States in Vietnam and the French in Algeria. Although U.S. forces had prevailed militarily in Vietnam by 1972, and the French had defeated the Algeria's National Liberation Front by 1958, both publics were so weary of war that they preferred withdrawal and if necessary, defeat, rather than continued engagement.

    Casualties and Money

    If the conventional wisdom is "three years and out," why did public support for intervention in Afghanistan hold up as long as it did? There are two reasons. The key consideration is that the public takes interest once casualties and resources reach a certain point. Fatalities in Afghanistan averaged a relatively low level of about five per month through 2005, when casualty levels—and thus visibility—began to rise. Similarly, costs were under $20 billion until 2007, when they doubled. By 2010 costs exceeded $100 billion. 9 Some conflicts stay below that level of visibility. Colombia is one example. The United States has been helping the Colombian government fight a drug-fueled insurgency for nearly two decades. However, casualties and cost have been low enough that the American public is barely aware of the conflict. Bosnia and the Philippines are other examples where low casualties have allowed an extended commitment.

    The other reason, unique to Afghanistan, is that until mid-2008 it was masked by the conflict in Iraq. As a result, the public may not have given Afghanistan the attention—and resulting skepticism—it would have received as a stand-alone event. In the summer of 2008 fatalities in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq for the first time, and public scrutiny increased.

    The foregoing analysis has major implications for force planning, as the United States will fight two types of conflict: long, low-cost, small-force operations, and short, high-cost, large-force engagements. Unfortunately, that is inconsistent with the forces and programs the Pentagon is pursuing, which are based on long-term, high-cost, large-force campaigns of counterinsurgency or irregular warfare.

    Back to the 1970s?

    The public's skepticism about interventions, even short ones, complicates planning. As Figure 3 (below) indicates, public support for military interventions abroad is at a decades-long low, similar to the 1970s when failure in Vietnam also turned the public's attention inward. 10 The reluctance to intervene—which became known as the "Vietnam syndrome"—dominated foreign-policy discussions for decades after that war.

    For the military, the effects were severe pressure on both budgets and institutions. The Navy shrank from 932 ships in 1968 to 532 a decade later. The Army downsized from 1.5 million Soldiers in 1968, at the height of the war, to a post-war force of 780,000—below even the pre-war level of 970,000. The Air Force was cut from 189 wings to 146, far below its pre-war level of 202. The Marine Corps alone maintained its pre-Vietnam strength. Readiness for all services dropped as funding fell faster than force structure. This was the era of the "hollow Army" and of ships that could not sail. Further, the institutions were challenged as skeptical publics, disillusioned by military failure, questioned the military's traditional manner of doing things. One result was the need to fully integrate racially and to shift to volunteer recruiting—two challenges the military accepted and successfully met. An effort to unionize the military along European lines was fended off.

    In response, the U.S. military in general, but the Army and Air Force particularly, refocused on conventional conflicts against clearly defined, widely accepted threats—in Europe and in Korea—a decision that made sense both militarily and politically. That refocusing bore fruit in the 1980s with a renewed sense of mission and the funding to execute that mission.

    Of course, no two historical circumstances are identical. A key difference between the post-Vietnam era and today is that the anti-war political forces are not anti-military. The opposition, perhaps having learned from the past, argues that it supports the warriors even as it opposes the wars. That may ease pressures against military budgets and forces. On the other hand, pressures on the overall federal budget from entitlement programs, domestic priorities, and high deficits are extraordinary and growing, and they are widely expected to affect the military eventually. 11

    Further, the option to maintain force structure by focusing on a large, conventional threat is no longer available. North Korea, for example, while hostile and unpredictable, has languished militarily, and is not the conventional threat it once was. Conflicts against Russia, China, or Iran would be demanding, but are hard to justify politically. Russia and China have been portrayed as "strategic partners," making it difficult for a president to build forces for a war against them. (A limited air-naval campaign in the Taiwan Strait is a different matter.) Iran is a dangerous country with nuclear ambitions and an erratic leadership, but an invasion, following so soon after our bitter experiences in the region, gathers little public support—only 33 percent in recent polls. 12

    The Challenge for the Future

    Ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will mask, for a time, the disconnect between strategy and what the public will support. As long as forces are at war, there is an obvious and immediate requirement to maintain their size and readiness. However, as the level of forces committed to Iraq and Afghanistan declines, both analysts and the public will start to ask tough questions about the size and purpose of our armed forces, anticipating a peace dividend.

    The Navy and Marine Corps are well positioned to enter this new era of skepticism about long-term interventions and "foreign entanglements." Global engagement, short-term expeditions, and for the Navy, a potential high-end conflict in the Taiwan Strait, set a minimum size on their structure. In contrast, the Air Force will be pressed to maintain its size because it has no global peer, although potential air conflicts with China set a high requirement for capability. The trade-off of size for sophistication is one the Air Force traditionally has been willing to make. The Army's force structure—justified as it is by large-scale, long-term ground campaigns—faces collapse.

    In the long term, a dangerous world likely will produce events that make the need for robust military forces evident. But until then, strategists and force planners will need to build a consensus based on what the public will support, a difficult intellectual task that needs to begin soon.

    1. Jim Lacey and LTCOL Kevin Woods, U.S. Army (Ret.), "Adapt or Die," Proceedings , August 2007. The phrase "Three years and out" comes from Steven Metz, "Three Years and You're Out," National Interest online, 2 January 2008

    2. John Mueller, "The Iraq Syndrome," Foreign Affairs , November/December 2005. See also, John Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973).

    3. Polling data from Gallup Organization, retrieved from . All were in response to the question "Was it a mistake to send U.S. troops to [named conflict]?" (2010 Iraq data from slightly different question.)

    4. Polling data from Gallup Organization and CNN/Opinion Research. 2010 data from Washington Post-ABC News. (Question not asked in 2004 or 2005, a reflection of the war's low profile during those years.)

    5. Adam Sage, "Afghan Lawsuit Adds Pressure for Sarkozy to Agree to Troop Withdrawal," The Times (London) 30 October 2009

    6. Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver, and Jason Reifler, "Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq", International Security , Volume 30, No. 3, (Winter 2005/06), pp. 7-46, and Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver, and Jason Reifler, Paying the Human Cost of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

    7. FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (Headquarters, Department of the Army, December 2006) cites "years, if not decades."

    8. Polling data from "America's Place in the World," Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, December, 2009, p. 47, 48; "Broad Opposition to Bush's Iraq Plan", Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 16 January 2007; "Polling Analysis: Afghanistan 2009 vs. Iraq 2007", "Political Hotsheet," , 1 December 2009.

    9. Casualty figures from . Budget costs from Congressional Budget Office, "The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11." Amy Belasco, 28 September 2009.

    10. "America's Place in the World," op. cit., p. 12.

    11. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that an aging population's impact on Social Security and health-care costss will exponentially increase budget demands in coming decades. Congressional Budget Office, The Long-Term Budget Outlook , June 2009.

    12. Washington Post-ABC News poll, 15-18 October 2009. Air attacks do somewhat better—42%—but diplomacy is always preferred.

    Colonel Cancian works in Washington, D.C., and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings . He has written extensively on strategy, force structure, and budgets. He served 34 years in the Marine Corps, active-duty and reserve, including Desert Storm and two tours in Iraq.

    Colonel Cancian served 33 years on active duty and in the reserves as an infantry and artillery officer. His last assignment was with the Marine Corps' combat assessment team for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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