Americans Want Their Leaders to Obey the Laws of War

New research claims that the U.S. public doesn’t care about protecting enemy civilians. It is wrong—and dangerous.

An F-16CJ flies over the Eglin land range as the pilot releases a GBU-31 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition during a test mission on Feb. 25, 2003.
An F-16CJ flies over the Eglin land range as the pilot releases a GBU-31 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition during a test mission on Feb. 25, 2003. Michael Ammons/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

This week, the Washington Post reported on a paper by Stanford University and Dartmouth College researchers showing that “One-third of Americans would support a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea.” The Post emphasized in particular the finding, based in part on an earlier study on Iran, that “the U.S. public exhibits … a shocking willingness to support the killing of enemy civilians.” Other news sources are already picking up on this “terrifying” story.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not actually true. By replicating the earlier Iran study, we’ve found that most Americans do not approve of killing enemy civilians. In fact, Americans care deeply about the protection of civilians, as other studies have also shown. Although a few supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump and others are sanguine about war crimes, the U.S. public is generally not.

Highlighting supposed American readiness to bomb civilians is not just misleading, it’s potentially dangerous. For the laws of war to have power, it matters whether policymakers think Americans believe in these rules. And at a time of unprecedented U.S. brinkmanship with North Korea and Iran, these norms are more important than ever.

The original Stanford-Dartmouth Iran study asked 750 Americans to read a fictional news story in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff propose saturation bombing an Iranian city in the hopes of forcing a surrender after a bloody ground war. Respondents were then asked to choose between continuing the ground war and losing another 20,000 troops, or intentionally killing 100,000 civilians by striking the city. We ran the same experiment on 2,500 people as well as a few other tests to better draw out American attitudes, particularly their commitment to protecting enemy civilians.

In the survey, 80 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat agreed with the idea that civilians should never be the object of attack in war. Many expressed disbelief at the question itself, seeing the very idea of attacking a civilian city as un-American.

Moreover, these beliefs in law and morality heavily influenced respondents’ answers on the Iran bombing scenario. When given the same hypothetical dilemma as the earlier study, Americans who agreed that attacking civilians was morally wrong were less likely to approve the fictional strike on a civilian city than those who did not agree.

In addition, Americans who understood that the Geneva Conventions prohibited such attacks were less likely approve the strike. Even respondents who were just asked to think about law and ethics before deciding whether to strike a city full of civilians were much less likely to approve of doing so, regardless of how they answered those ethical questions.

Why did the earlier Iran study miss this? The Stanford and Dartmouth researchers who constructed the study were trying hard to be “realistic” by forcing respondents to grapple with a terrible dilemma. But their fictional scenario was unrealistic in an important way. Although it cued respondents with factors that we know increase tolerance for war crimes—potential troop casualties and the possibility of a long war of attrition—it didn’t mention a key factor: the Geneva Conventions themselves. In the real world, these rules and standards would definitely be a part of the conversation. And our research—like others’—shows this makes a major difference.

There is another reason why many respondents in the original Iran study choose to strike civilians: the way the poll questions were structured. The Stanford-Dartmouth study forced respondents to choose on a six-point scale between two terrible options: continuing a bloody, pointless ground war or striking a defenseless civilian city (presumably to end that war, although saturation bombing has never ended a war). Respondents who objected to both policies or to the question itself were forced into one camp or the other, which means that their true attitudes weren’t reflected.

When our respondents were given the opportunity to evaluate the same fictional Iran scenario in their own words, we found by analyzing their comments that half of Americans rejected both the strike and the ground war, demanding other options: precision air power against military targets, diplomacy, or retreat. Similarly, the new North Korea study asks for the level of support for a strike without allowing for other policy options.

Given the way these earlier studies stacked the deck in favor of support for war crimes, it is heartening that so many Americans still register a preference for following the laws of war. Indeed, in the more recent Stanford-Dartmouth study on North Korea, the only time a majority of the public preferred a strike was if U.S. Navy sailors had been killed—the one scenario in which a strike would not violate the United Nations Charter.

Why does this matter? As research by the political scientist Sarah Kreps has shown, and as new research confirms, the structure of poll questions affects the measures you get. When researchers say Americans approve of war crimes, and it gets reported in the media, it can have a political impact. Some of the media sources that picked up the original Iran study were right-wing news outlets, including the hyper-partisan Daily Caller (“Americans Wouldn’t Really Mind if We Just Nuked Somebody”) and the National Review. We worry that these media stories could inadvertently increase the drumbeat for war (and for green-lighting war crimes) in Iran or North Korea, especially among Trump supporters.

This is a dangerous time. Ordering and then canceling strikes on Iran aside, the sitting U.S. president and his supporters in Congress have evinced a willingness to commit war crimes such as torture and carpet-bombing. They’re likelier to obey rules of war when they fear social censure. Knowing that Americans care about enemy civilians may be the thin red line separating current war planning from the firebombings of World War II. For Iran, North Korea, and their allies, the belief that Americans would not cheer such acts could be the thin red line protecting U.S. civilians from retribution.

Fortunately, our research shows that the red line is not as thin as some surveys say. The Geneva Conventions do matter to Americans, and those norms are likelier to influence citizen attitudes when they are part of the political conversation. It is important for pundits and observers to make sure they stay that way.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Twitter: @charlicarpenter

Alexander H. Montgomery is an associate professor of political science at Reed College.

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