Antiwar views split along generation gap
Surveys find the young most supportive of military action. Older citizens are skeptical.
WASHINGTON — Matthew Gardner, a 19-year-old Maryland college student, believes the United States must use force to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"He's really capable of anything," says Mr. Gardner, who worries about Iraq's potential use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. "The only thing you can do is go to war - it's unavoidable."
Retired Air Force pilot Frank Houde, who recently joined tens of thousands of antiwar protesters in Washington, D.C., holds a different view: "Peace is patriotic."
Upsetting stereotypes of Vietnam-era protests by flower-draped co-eds and flag-waving veterans, younger Americans are more likely to support the use of military force against Iraq than are senior citizens, recent surveys suggest.
Americans aged 18 to 29 back US military action by a 3-to-1 margin (69 percent to 23 percent). In contrast, support falls to 51 percent among those aged 65 or older, 31 percent of whom oppose a war against Iraq, according to three surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
The apparent generation gap over Iraq is rooted in starkly different experiences of war, as well a universal tendency for seniors to view the world with a more cautious, jaded eye, whereas young adults feel bolder and more "bulletproof," experts say.
Older Americans' outlook on war has been shaped by long, bloody conflicts such as World War II and the Vietnam War. By contrast, people in their late teens and 20s have come of age in an era of relatively antiseptic conflicts with few US casualties.
"Today's generation, to the extent they have experienced war apart from computer games, have lived through the Gulf War, which was very quick, successful, and relatively bloodless," says William Galston, a public affairs professor at the University of Maryland. He directs a center that promotes research on the civic engagement of Americans aged from 15 to 25.
Underscoring this point, senior citizens surveyed by Pew were far more likely than younger Americans to believe that the United States would suffer major casualties in a war with Iraq. Whereas 62 percent of those age 65 and older anticipated a large number of US casualties, that view was held by less than half of respondents from other age groups including just 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds.
"I think there would be a lot of Iraqi casualties, but not so many US," says Gardner, as he folds shirts at his part-time job at a clothing store. "If things go to the US plan, everything will be okay. We won't lose that many soldiers."
Broad generational differences may also underpin views on Iraq, social scientists say. Older people tend to be more risk-averse, whereas the young generally see themselves as immune from harm.
"The younger the population and the more unattached young men around, the greater the appetite for conflict," Mr. Galston says.
At the same time, Sept. 11 proved especially troubling for younger Americans, who may seek military retaliation.
"Sept. 11 alarmed and jolted younger people more than older people," says Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia University. "It's the first time the world knocked on their door ... and they are more prone to be activated by fear to support a military response."
A tendency for young people to reflect mainstream views could contribute to the generation gap. "The young go with the political winds," says Dan Hallin, a communications professor at the University of California at San Diego.
On Iraq, young people are more accepting than seniors of the Bush administration's policy of preemptive strikes, and have greater confidence that Washington will secure support from its allies, the Pew surveys show.
While polls offer only a snapshot, similar age gaps have existed in past wars. Despite a vocal antiwar movement, young people as a whole were more reluctant to call US military action in Vietnam a mistake than were their elders, Gallup polls from 1966 and 1970 show. Young people were also somewhat more supportive than seniors of the use of US military force against Iraq in 1991.
(A review of current polling on Iraq found no others that offered age breakdowns that would allow a direct comparison with the Pew findings. A Monitor/TIPP poll last month found that young people and seniors held similar views when asked to gauge the importance of US military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power in the next six months.)
The irony of generational differences over war hit home recently for retired Air Force Lt. Col. Frank Houde, a Vietnam veteran from Albany, N.Y. Joining a mixed-age crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Washington Oct. 26, he recalled his ambivalence over similar antiwar rallies of the '60s and '70s.
Back then, Mr. Houde remembers feeling chagrin that his 70-year-old mother took part in the peace protests.
As a career military officer, Houde says he would have preferred ignoring the demonstrations.
Now, as a 68-year-old father of five sons, including one who is an Air Force engineer, Houde has come full circle. He is an active member of Veterans for Peace.
"The older people, they remember their own innocence, and it really hurts them thinking of young people going into this situation," says Woody Powell, national administrator for Veterans For Peace in St. Louis.