New Research from UMass Amherst Political Scientist Shows Americans Would Oppose War Crimes in a War with Iran

Survey by Charli Carpenter and colleague Alex Montgomery found over 80% of Americans say civilians should never be the object of attack in war
Charli Carpenter
Charli Carpenter

AMHERST, Mass. – Three years ago, when tensions were high with Iran, political scientists from Dartmouth and Stanford released a study claiming that Americans would have little respect for the norm of civilian immunity in a war with Iran. Their survey experiment appeared to show that Americans would support targeting a city full of Iranian civilians, World War II-style, even if nuclear—instead of conventional—weapons were used, and even if up to two million Iranian civilians were killed.

New research from political scientists Charli Carpenter of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Alex Montgomery of Reed College shows this finding was highly misleading, however. Carpenter and Montgomery found that Americans do, in fact, care deeply about protecting civilians, and they say that if public opinion matters at all to the Trump Administration or any other it should be a restraint on indiscriminate attacks in any war.

Carpenter and Montgomery replicated the earlier experiment, but introduced some new measures to understand Americans attitudes better—especially their sensitivity to the civilian immunity norm. The original survey forced respondents to choose between killing civilians or continuing to lose troops in a bloody ground war. But when respondents were asked an open-ended version of the question, after reading a fictional story about a war with Iran, most rejected both options in favor of negotiation, withdrawal or air attacks on military targets. Many expressed disbelief at the very idea of attacking a civilian city, labelling such tactics as un-American.

Carpenter and Montgomery also directly tested the impact of international law and norms on American’s thinking. They found over 80% of Americans strongly or somewhat agreed with the idea that civilians should never be the object of attack in war, and those Americans who agreed with this moral principle were less likely to approve the attack. In addition, Americans who were familiar with the Geneva Conventions were less likely to approve a strike against a civilian city. Moreover, regardless of their knowledge of the law or agreement with the norm, respondents who were even just asked to think about law and ethics before being asked about striking the city were much less likely to agree to do so.

The paper describing the research, “The Stopping Power of Norms,” was published in International Security this month. Carpenter, professor of political science at UMass Amherst and an expert in the laws of war and pop culture, had teamed up with Montgomery, associate professor of political science at Reed and a nuclear proliferation expert and quantitative methodologist, to figure out if the original finding was correct.

“It rang not quite true based on much of what we know about American attitudes toward the laws of war,” Carpenter said. “But we also know that depending on how you phrase a survey question or tell a story, you can get people to say almost anything. So when we replicated the survey but with the most neutral question possible, we found what we think is a more accurate result.

One finding of the research is that Americans’ willingness to go along with war crimes increases if the Geneva Conventions are not part of the political conversation, as they were not in the original researchers’ fictional survey vignette. “Norms matter when they are invoked,” Montgomery pointed out at a recent international conference.

In “Breaking Bad,” a separate, related paper published in Perspectives on Politics, the authors looked at the reverse effect—that answering survey questions about committing war crimes could actually impact respondents understanding of what is or is not a crime. They found that respondents who answered a question about whether bombing civilians was legal were much more likely to say “yes” if they answered the question after considering the Iran bombing scenario than those who answered that question first.

“It turns out that depending how you measure the strength of international law, you can actually weaken international law,” Carpenter said.

The researchers say that the real-world lesson from their findings is that in the run-up to any war with Iran, it is important for human rights groups, generals, Congress, journalists and citizens to keep attention to international law and morality if Americans are to avoid repeating the worst crimes of the past.