Tom Engelhardt makes an argument for why the US casualties in Afghanistan are nowadays virtually ignored by television news and get buried in the back pages in the print media. He suggests that the war dead are mostly young, rural or small-town, and working or lower-middle class.
It is certainly the case that if the children of the billionaires or even the millionaires were getting blown up in Ghazni and Khost, it would be more of an issue for America’s elite-oriented press and television. (I’m aware that some children of the elite do serve, but let us face it, the all-volunteer army is not a cross-section of the country; rather some social classes and regions are over-represented).
But I think the story is more complicated than just the social origins of the dead soldiers. After all, the Iraq War was a very significant campaign issue in 2006-2008, and Americans seemed to mind our military casualties over there during those years, and the press reported the war; and the social composition of the military was the same then.
I wrack my brains for why the US public seems decidedly uninterested in the Afghanistan War, and why they would deliver the ultimate insult to our troops of just not caring if they hear about it when 6 US warriors are shot down in a single day.
(Google analytics tells me my hits go down when I blog the Afghanistan War or its Pakistani dimension. Me, I don’t blog for hits, so I don’t really care. But if I were working for advertising-supported news corporation, I’d have long since been fired for my insistence on writing about things I think are important rather than what the public says it wants to hear about).
I am sad to report that I have concluded that the relative silence on our Afghanistan war dead has to do with the workings of our two-party system. Americans are great followers of sports where two teams oppose one another. They become fierce partisans of one team over the other. They have the same approach to economic life (iPhone vs. Android, Kindle vs. Google ebooks, X-Box vs. Playstation, etc.) They join a “team” in their minds and grow absolutely scathing about the other side. Republicans and Democrats are teams for them. It may be the real reason a third party is so hard to mount; it does have to do with the first past the post electoral system, but it may be also that you can’t root for more than one team at a time, so it is more convenient to have just two parties if you have a binary mindset.
So here’s the reason the whole bloody Afghanistan war is off the radar: it isn’t a partisan issue. The Republican Party, except for a few Liberatarians, is solidly in favor of the war and would apparently like to go on fighting it for decades if only they could. But the Democrats cannot oppose the war (as they eventually opposed the Iraq War) because their own president has implemented a surge and is dedicated to prosecuting the war. The rank and file Democrats may not be very happy about Obama’s adoption of the war, but they are loathe to attack their own party leader (i.e. many of them feel as though they have to support their team).
In the United States of America, if you cannot get an argument going on a partisan party basis, then it just tends to be ignored and to generate no buzz.
If the Republicans had retained the White House and a Republican president had done an Afghanistan surge, I think there would have been big demonstrations against the war by the Democratic faithful and Democratic representatives and senators would be denouncing it big time. People would have noticed the dozens of troops being killed every month now.
One reason for the partisan character of social knowledge in the United States is that people organize their opinions by party. My colleague at the University of Michigan, Brendan Nyhan, has discovered that when people are presented with information that contradicts deeply-held opinions, they tend to reject it and to cling to their original opinions even more strongly. This reaction is called ‘backfire.’
So partisan Republicans start out with an opinion that their party leaders were right to take us into Afghanistan, and that we are fighting al-Qaeda there, and the mere mayhem in that country cannot shake their conviction. And Democrats start off with a conviction that President Obama is wise to wind down the Afghanistan War through an initial troop escalation. If you tell them what is really going on in Afghanistan, it won’t necessarily convince them that their premises are incorrect, and your challenge may even confirm them in their prior support of the war.
(The independents don’t ruin this analysis because in a two-party system there aren’t really very many true independents, there are only part-time Democrats and Republicans, a group that swings between the two, just as some sports fans may abandon a long-cherished team if it languishes at the bottom of the rankings for too long, and some other team emerges that is more exciting).
It is a dispiriting conclusion. Arguments in the United States are very seldom about right and wrong for their own sake. They are about Supporting Your Team.
Since no advantage would at the moment accrue to either Team from opposing the Afghanistan War, there is little opposition to it. And since it isn’t a partisan debate, the television reporters in particular are mostly uninterested in it. Even most print editors don’t put it on the front page very often.
It can very occasionally happen that a lot of people in a party turn on their own party. Some ten percent of Obama’s vote in 2008 was from conservatives disgusted with George W. Bush and Dick (“Wanted in Lagos”) Cheney. And, infamously, the left wing of the Democratic Party revolted in 1968 against the Establishment’s support for the Vietnam War. The revolt, however, just had the effect of putting the pro-war party in power and, probably, of extending the war. A left-Democratic revolt against Obama might well have a similar effect, of ensconcing the Republicans in the White House for a decade or more.
Other reasons than the lack of partisan wrangling over the war may be playing a part. Nearly ten percent of American workers are unemployed (a statistic that actually refers to people in between jobs; the truly unemployed stopped being counted years ago). They have domestic issues on their mind, and don’t have the luxury (or perhaps even the high speed cable service) to follow Afghanistan obsessively.
I think Nyhan is right only for short-term challenges to people’s convictions. Over 4 or 5 years if something they started out believing keeps being proved wrong, many of them will eventually back away from the belief. I saw that happen, it seemed to me with glacial slowness, during the Iraq War.
If I am right, then the next time we’ll hear a lot about Afghanistan will be if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. By mid-2013, the Democrats will likely be holding big anti-war rallies and carrying posters of the dead soldiers about whom we have so much trouble hearing in 2010. All of a sudden, their faith in their party and dislike of the other Team will line up with opposition to the Afghanistan War. Until then, those thirsty for knowledge on the subject will just have to content themselves with reading Tomdispatch.com.