Dr Philip Towle challenges the archetypes of age in attitudes to war and asks if long term demographic trends will make military intervention less popular in developed nations.

Polling should have changed many of our assumptions about politics. We have no excuse today for believing that the old favour sending the young off to fight their causes while the young back peaceful solutions to international problems. For those of us who grew up during the Vietnam War it did indeed seem that the young were all against the United States’ intervention and against their elders- what after all were the demonstrations about from Kent State University to Cambridge? The archetypal ‘peaceniks’ were bearded, sandal-wearing twenty year olds.

Or were they?  In fact, John Mueller began to undermine this idea in his 1973 study of War, Presidents and Public Opinion.[1] Using a mass of polling data Mueller showed that, at the start of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, more Americans between the age of 20 and 29 were sympathetic to their country’s involvement than those over 50. Of course, as Mueller pointed out, attitudes also depended on gender, political loyalties and educational levels as well as the course of the war and the number of casualties. The first tendency was hardly surprising, Democrats were more likely to support President Johnson when he took the crucial decision to increase US involvement, than they were to back his successor Richard Nixon. But Mueller’s conclusion that the highly educated were more in favour of intervention, as they were of most international ventures, also caught people by surprise given the way students often dominated the anti-war demonstrations.

Mueller was looking at US statistics and for two very specific wars but recent British statistics generally mirror his contentions. Robert Whybrow examined British polls on the Bosnian conflict during the early 1990s.[2] Great majorities of all age groups were content with sending troops as part of a UN force to protect food convoys but, when it was suggested that intervention might ‘end up like Vietnam’, 70% of those over 55, who could remember the 1960s only too well, opposed sending troops against 40% in the 18 to 34 age range. As British involvement deepened, 51% of those over 65 wanted forces pulled out in the event of serious casualties against only 21% amongst the under 35s. As in the United States during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, supporters of the opposition party, in this case Labour, were more critical of the government’s cautious policy than Conservatives though the ABC social classes favoured intervention more than the C2DE classes.

YouGov polls carried out on intervention in the Syrian civil war, when Parliament was voting on the issue in 2013, show that age made a greater difference to beliefs than gender, political affiliation or region; 81% of Britons over the age of 60 opposed sending British troops to protect Syrian civilians against 44% between the ages of 18 and 24. Similarly 86% of the older group were against involving British troops in attempts to overthrow President Assad compared with 59% of their younger compatriots.[3]

Younger people may have a predisposition towards being more idealistic and optimistic about intervention overseas but the experience of a particular generation is also important. John Benson’s 1982 study of US attitudes found that support for US military intervention to repel a Soviet attack on Berlin or Western Europe did not decline smoothly with age and the over 60s were only one per cent less sympathetic to the idea of defending Berlin than the 18 to 29 age group.[4] Though isolationism was still strong in the US following the Vietnam War, the older group, particularly if wealthy and well educated, had learnt from the 1930s that the US had vital interests in Europe and that aggressors could not be appeased. Similarly, YouGov’s survey of British attitudes towards the end of the Afghan War in January 2013 showed that pessimism about the outcome of the war was greater amongst the young because they had never known a time when their country was not involved in bloody and indecisive overseas interventions. 12 years after the start of the war much the largest group or 48% of those over 60 thought that the Western involvement in the war had made no difference to the stability of Afghanistan, while the largest group of those aged 18 to 24, 32% thought that Western involvement had made the country less stable, 24% thought it had made the country more stable and 21% said it had made no difference. What was striking was that, despite their gloom about the outcome, more than 90% of the over sixties expressed admiration for the British armed forces for their service in Afghanistan against 67% of the 18 to 24 age group who might have been expected to sympathise with their friends.[5]

But, this apart, general attitudes do make sense in terms of human nature; first of all we become generally more cautious with age. It is the young who indulge in dangerous sports and this is not just because they are fitter, they are also more adventurous. Secondly, we become less idealistic about grand causes as consciously or unconsciously we absorb the law of unintended effects. The causes we thought so important when we were young now seem tired if not utterly discredited; how many respectable lawyers and academics sported shirts at university in the 1960s showing pictures of Mao Tse-dong or Che Guevara? Often we even come to share the opinions our parents held which once seemed so reactionary to us. Finally, we spend our mature years protecting our children against such dangers as traffic, predators and those we regard as bad influences, then suddenly they have grown up and become old enough to fight for their country.

Every parent must wonder what he or she would feel if it were his or her daughter or son who was risking their life in some distant conflict. Those who have to cope with their death are no doubt proud of their child’s bravery but this cannot compensate for the loss. And the shock is greater today than it was 200 years ago when Britain was fighting against Napoleon. Then the infant death rate amongst the poor was always high and, even had they never strayed from the family farm, many would have died of disease or accident.  The birth rate was also higher than today so that the population was growing rapidly. Now most parents have only one or two children, and the loss of one of them is felt all the more deeply. 

If age does influence attitudes towards interventions overseas, two age-related forces are at work in international affairs. On the one hand, national leaders have become younger replacing experience and gravitas with more telegenic appearances and with the stamina to face the constant demands. But, as recent experience shows, younger leaders are more idealistic and willing to embark on overseas intervention to ‘right wrongs’. On the other hand, as populations age across the world, they become cautious. Countries have been most assertive internationally or unstable internally when their populations were growing rapidly; Britain in the 19th Century, Japan in the early 20th Century and the Middle East today are cases in point. The result was clear this year when the British and US populations blenched when Cameron and Obama showed signs of wanting to use force in Syria and their assemblies followed the popular lead. We may see more such clashes between government and people in the future but long term demographic trends in the developed nations mean they may be less inclined to intervene overseas.


[1] John E. Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion, John Wiley, New York, 1973.

[2] Robert J. Whybrow, ‘British attitudes towards the Bosnian situation’ in Richard  Sobel and Eric Shiraev, International Public Opinion and the Bosnia Crisis, Lexington Books, Lanham, 2003, pp. 43-68.

[3] YouGov Survey 28-29 August 2013, www.yougov.com

[4] John M. Benson, ‘The Polls: US Military intervention’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 1982, pp. 592-598.

[5] YouGov Survey 9-10 January 2013, www.yougov.com

Related Content