In a post entitled AMERICAN ATTITUDES? INCOHERENT,
Professor Dauber over at Ranting Profs takes a rant on Fox News' latest opinion polling on Iraq. She congratulates Fox for asking some new questions, but wonders whether the responses make any sense.
Whatever one thinks about polls and polling methods in general, there are few subjects, it seems to me, more vulnerable to bad polling than questions dealing with attitudes towards war casualties. The question that's been asked since at least the end of major combat in Iraq has been whether whatever current casualty rates among American soldiers are "acceptable." To answer the question affirmatively requires respondents to associate themselves with a perspective that, if voiced publically by a politician or pundit, would result in bitter criticism along familiar "well, that's certainly easy for you to say" lines. Mark Shields would be all over President Bush if the latter was caught saying anything even suggesting a blithe "acceptance" of casualty rates. On the other hand, to reply in the negative seems to suggest opposition to current policy: Saying that the casualty rates are "unacceptable" would seem to imply either that one feels the troops are being badly led and deployed, or that they should never have been deployed in the first place. The respondents' three choices - "acceptable," "unacceptable," "don't know/no opinion/not sure" - come down to confessing to Eichmann-like inhmanity, peace activist naivete, or stupid passivity toward the most pressing issue of the moment.
I suspect that many respondents answer the question they guess is really being asked, but that different respondents guess differently, and that, in this specific instance, a human reluctance to call any casualty "acceptable" skews results toward the negative. If the question is asked alongside other questions - regarding overall support for the war, longer-term expectations, etc. - then the respondent is also given a chance to "split the ballot," using one answer to provide his or her main response, and the other, less encompassing question to express whatever reservations. The overall statement is not unreasonable at all: "Every casualty is one casualty too many, but we must stay the course."
The Fox questions seem to offer a similar split ballot opportunity, and it may therefore not be surprising that they appear to give contradictory results. Prof. Dauber wonders how it's possible for majorities to believe both that "supporting the troops" means "bringing them home," but that their mission is "part of the war on terror":
[T]he results are -- well, essentially incoherent. A majority of Americans (but just barely) agree with the Bush administration's argument that conceptually the war in Iraq is a part of the overall War on Terror. A majority believe that "support the troops" means -- bring them home. This is staggering. It means the leftist rhetoric that essentially portrays the soldier, the armed US combat soldier, the strongest, most competent, best trained, best equipped, most professional soldier in the history of the world, as an infantilized victim, needing us to protect them, by fighting for them in the political arena where they are presumably helpless, so we can bring them "home" -- in other words, protect them by returning them from danger to saftey is persuasive to a majority of the Americans those soldiers protect. It is a rhetoric that portrays us as the only ones who can protect them since they cannot maneuver in the political realm. Yet a sizeable majority also believes that the right thing to do is to see things through in Iraq, which is obviously only possible if the soldiers stay in danger.
Though Prof. Dauber might be right about how leftist rhetoric depicts soldiers as victims, I believe she may be overinterpreting the apparent contradictions in the poll results. If you add the three responses together, they make for an entirely reasonable statement: "I'd sure like to see those boys and girls home and safe as soon as possible, but first they've got an important job to finish." Saying they've got an important job to finish doesn't mean that won't ever come home - or won't come home soon enough, all things considered.
Read this way, what's surprising is that as large a number of people answer in favor of acceptability of casualties in the usual question and against bringing the soldiers home as soon as possible in the other question. As a strong supporter of the war, I could still honestly join the majorities for "unacceptability" and "bring 'em home," though I would not do so - not because I consider casualties easy to accept or because I wish to see our soldiers in Iraq a second longer than necessary, but because I'm aware that the first set of answers would be interpreted as "anti-war."