- Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime
Part of a larger study of collateral damage commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, this monograph examines and compares five incidents involving civilian casualties that occurred in recent U.S. wars: the 1991 bombing of a bunker at Al Firdos during the Iraq war; the 1999 attacks on a convoy at Djakovica and on the Chinese embassy during the war in Kosovo; the 2002 bombing of a wedding party during the effort in Afghanistan; and a 2003 explosion in a Baghdad marketplace during Operation Iraqi Freedom. [End Page 1322] Employing quantitative analyses of news reports in elite print and electronic media outlets before and after the incidents and extensive analyses of public opinion polls, the authors sought to determine whether and how the incidents affected U.S. and foreign media reporting and public support.
Their findings, much simplified here, are straightforward. In each case study, civilian casualties received considerable attention in the press and were played up by adversary governments, which sought to use them to erode American public support for the wars in question. Whatever the reporting of the press and the bantering of enemy propagandists, however, most Americans appeared to understand that it will never be possible to eliminate all civilian casualties from modern warfare. As in the Vietnam War, although concerned about civilian casualties, they placed far more importance upon losses among their own and allied forces. In one case, for example, the fate of three captured American servicemen in Kosovo evoked significantly greater concern from Americans (by a margin of 35 to 24 percent) than "victims of violence in Kosovo" (p. 102). In all cases, the authors believe this was due to the high regard Americans placed on the integrity of their nation's armed forces and their conviction that commanders and policy makers were making sincere efforts to avoid harm to innocents. Rather than civilian casualties, the main determinants of American public support for the wars in question appear to have come down to political party affiliation (Democrats tended to be in the opposition), belief that a conflict was justified or unjustified, race and gender (blacks and women tended to have more doubts), and whether an individual believed the United States had a vital stake in a war. These conclusions fit well with the lessons the U.S. Army drew from its studies of military-media relations during the Vietnam War. In that conflict, American losses also figured large in the formation of public opinion, as did political symbols gathered gradually throughout people's lives—whether they were liberal or conservative, favorably disposed toward the military or suspicious of government. Civilian casualties were well down the line.
That said, a word of caution seems in order. Any analysis based heavily on polling results such as this one is ultimately at the mercy of the pollsters who framed the questions. As any number of studies have shown, the phrasing of a poll's questions can determine its findings. A question in the abstract, for example, will often prompt a negative, and so on. The authors of this study compensate ably by including the questions and by qualifying their analyses when warranted with little warnings such as presumably, could have contributed, and somewhat. Even so, serious students should read the questions and make up their own minds. There are gems here, but also, I suspect, a few carbuncles.