Middle Adolescents' Views of War and American Military Involvement in the Persian Gulf

Article excerpt

On January 16, 1991, the United States, with the concurrence of the United Nations and the support of several allies, began armed hostilities against the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. The justification for the U.S.-led action was that it was in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The action was heralded by President Bush as a precursor of the "New World Order" in which the United Nations would not allow such aggression to stand. There had been intense debate over the concept of this new world order and how the United Nations (with its military options backed by the United States) should respond to open aggression of one nation against another. After initial misgivings, the United States Congress and public opinion strongly supported the expensive but victorious effort in the short war, which represented the largest American military action since Vietnam.

American adolescents have spent their childhoods in a country trying to recover from its defeat in Vietnam and the ignominy of the Iranian hostage crisis. The 1980s saw a reescalation of military spending and military actions under Presidents Reagan and Bush, including the bombing of Libya and interventions in Grenada and Panama, the perceived success of which resulted in new-found feelings of patriotism and power (Stein, 1986). The more recent collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites has added to this euphoria.

Early and mid-adolescents are generally concerned more with themselves (Elkind, 1967) than with political situations in distant countries. However, the Persian Gulf War, because of its wide media exposure and the many Americans who participated--more than half of the present subjects reported having a friend or relative in the war--certainly demanded the attention of adolescents no less than other age groups.

Adolescent attitudes toward war may be affected by developmental as well as cultural factors. Significant cognitive growth, occurring at a time when their short span of human experience leaves them unencumbered by practical considerations, can give adolescents the voice of the moral visionary, questioning beliefs relied on earlier and mistrusting what once was trusted implicitly (Erikson, 1960). Certainly adolescent protests were a major force in ending the Vietnam War (Jones, 1980; MacPherson, 1984). Cultural environments of the family, community, and nation also have a distinct influence on adolescent attitudes; parents in particular continue to strongly influence adolescents' basic values (Kandel, 1985), in spite of the perception of America as being a "youth culture."

In 1971, Tolley (1973) undertook a study of young people's understanding of war at a time when the Vietnam conflict was still raging. In 1988, two studies compared young (Roscoe, Stevenson, & Yacobozzi, 1988) and older (Stevenson, Roscoe, & Kennedy, 1988) adolescents' attitudes with those of Tolley's subjects. The 1988 studies found adolescents somewhat more patriotic, but still as disapproving of the current American military interventions as adolescents in Tolley's study.

The present study was initiated to (1) compare contemporary adolescents' attitudes about war with attitudes reported in the studies by Tolley (1973), Roscoe, Stevenson, and Yacobozzi (1988), and Stevenson, Roscoe, and Kennedy (1988); (2) determine the effect of such variables as location (rural, suburban, and urban), gender, and race on attitudes toward war; (3) investigate whether developmental or cultural influences were more important in determining attitudes toward the Persian Gulf War; and (4) examine how the experience of the Gulf War may have affected adolescents' assessment of war as a contemporary social issue and their general attitudes toward American military involvements. It was anticipated that the short war, which was publicized in a positive light (with information tightly controlled by the government), would influence adolescents to view military solutions to international problems more favorably, and to increase their trust in presidential leadership. …