Why No Violent Protests Against the Iraq War?--Posner
The war in Iraq is intensely unpopular, disfavored by a strong majority of Americans, and fiercely opposed by the far Left. The President is also highly unpopular. The situation thus resembles the situation with respect to the Vietnam war in 1968 after the Tet Offensive. So why are there no violent protests, as there were in 1968 and indeed until the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam?
The obvious answer is that there is no longer a draft; all the U.S. soldiers in Iraq are volunteers. But I do not consider that a sufficient answer, apart from the facts that only about a third of the persons drafted during the period of the Vietnam war served in Vietnam and, more important, that there were abundant escape hatches for persons of draft age who wanted to avoid military service altogether. Most of these involved continued education, and protesters were drawn disproportionately from the educated class. What is more, many of the protesters were either women or too old for the draft.
Still another source of doubt that the draft was solely responsible for the scale and virulence of the Vietnam protests is that, partly because all our soldiers today are volunteers, they are more popular than soldiers in the Vietnam era were, and casualties among them therefore arouse even greater sympathy. Indeed the military as a whole is one of the most respected institutions in America tpdau, which was not true in the 1960s. Another puzzle is that although Lyndon Johnson was intensely unpopular with the Left, it was only on account of the war; he was a liberal in domestic policy. George Bush is unpopular with the Left in all respects, not just the war, and so one might think him a more attractive target for protesters.
Another possible explanation for the difference in public reaction is that U.S. casualties in Iraq are far lower than they were in Vietnam. Almost 15,000 U.S. troops were killed in action in Vietnam in 1968, whereas the annual death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq is currently only about 1,000 a year. However, there is much greater sensitivity to casualties now than there was in the earlier era. The very low U.S. death rates in the invasion of Afghanistan and in the two invasions of Iraq make the slightly more than 3,000 U.S. deaths in Iraq since the completion of the 2003 invasion seem shockingly high by comparison.
I believe that five factors are as or more important than the end of the draft or the lower casualties in explaining the absence of violent protests against the Iraq war. The first is that the opponents of the war in Iraq have the support of one of the two political parties. Lyndon Johnson was of course a Democrat, and the Republican Party did not oppose the war (the Democrats were divided). The Left knows that violent protests against the war would weaken Democratic Party opposition and the likelihood of a Democratic President's being elected in 2008. Moreover, they have less need to protest because they are aligned with a powerful political force. Stated differently, protests would have a modest incremental effect on ending our military involvement in Iraq, and perhaps even a negative effect.
Second, the opportunity costs of time are higher today than they were in the 1960s and early 1970s for potential protesters. This is partly because of higher wages, especially for educated people, and the fact that a higher percentage of women are employed. The greater competitiveness of the economy discourages people from taking risks with their careers by protesting. It discourages college students as well as the employed, because someone who gets the reputation in college of being a violent protester, or is suspended or simply gets very low grades because of the distraction of engaging in protest activities, will see his opportunities for a good job diminish.
Third, the great expansion of the electronic media, including the advent of blogs, gives people outlets to blow off steam that are much cheaper, in cost of time, than street demonstrations or acts of violence. The electronic media enable a message to be communicated to far more people than street demonstrations do, and at lower cost, so one expects substitution in favor of the media.
Fourth is a learning factor. The violent protests against the Vietnam war probably did not shorten the war, but instead helped Nixon become President.
All together, these four factors suggest that the costs of violent protests have risen, and the benefits fallen, since the 1960s; hence the lower level of protest today, despite the parallels between the protracted, seemingly stalemated, Iraq and Vietnam wars.
But there is a fifth factors, cultural rather than economic or easily expressed in economic terms: For many of the Vietnam war protesters, the war was a symbol of what they believed to be deeper and broader problems with the United States and the entire Western world. They thought the "system" rotten and entertained Utopian hopes of overthrowing it and substituting a socialist or anarchist paradise. This belief gave the war more resonance as a target. Partly because of the collapse of communism, partly because of greater prosperity, few Americans are hostile to the American system. Most blame the Iraq war on the incompetence of the Bush Administration rather than on some more pervasive social or political pathology. This tempers their anger and their willingness to take career risks by engaging in protests against the war.