Political scientist Scott Althaus was here last week and had a lot of interesting things to say about war and public opinion. Here is one tidbit. The public’s opinion of past wars improves as a new war approaches. Thus, after Vietnam most people thought the war was a mistake and this held true for decades until the beginning of the Iraq war when the opinion of war in Vietnam suddenly improved! Even more dramatically, a majority of people thought that World War I was a mistake until World War II approached when the percentage thinking it was a good war doubled. This is especially perverse in that any rational response has got to see WWI as a bigger mistake the more probable is WWII.
Althaus also shows, in Priming Patriots, that the intensity of new coverage typically increases support for war – regardless of whether the coverage is negative or positive. Until negative news becomes overwhelming and long-lasting, more coverage simply rallies the martial spirit, encourages solidarity and solidifies support for the war. This explains a lot.
What checks on democracy are required to deal with the irrationality of public opinion about war?