Why you should care
Because college students are suddenly America's biggest proponents for peace.
The narrative of the pacifist student protesting war was calcified during the Vietnam War, as photos of burning draft cards and the shooting of Kent State protesters fueled the push for withdrawal.
But that image has been historically misleading: Younger Americans on the whole were actually more supportive of U.S. military action in southeast Asia than older Americans at the time, according to a Brookings analysis of Gallup polls. And that trend repeated itself in the lead-up to U.S. intervention in Iraq after 9/11. Six out of 10 young adults (aged 18 to 29) favored war, compared to fewer than half of those over 65.
So two decades later, as the U.S. appears at the precipice of potentially another Middle East conflict — this time with Iran, after the Jan. 3 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone — are young Americans still leading the call to arms?
The answer is a resounding no, according to a poll conducted by online survey and analytics company College Reaction and exclusively provided to OZY.
More than 80 percent of American students are opposed to the U.S. and its allies taking military action against Iran.
When asked about the possibility of war with Iran, four-fifths of the 1,024 students polled said they opposed military action, while nearly 18 percent said they favored it. That is more than a reversal of the pro-war sentiment reflected in the early aughts; it’s an outright rejection.
“The U.S. has been at war since 2001. For students today, anywhere from 83 to 100 percent of their lives have seen the United States mired in war,” says Cyrus Beschloss, CEO and founder of College Reaction, who himself graduated from Williams College in 2018. “These conflict-averse findings suggest students are starving for a respite from violence.”
Students seem markedly more war-wary than the general public, Beschloss adds. According to a recent USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, 39 percent of Americans support future airstrikes in Iran (compared to 38 percent who oppose).
The circumstances are significantly different for this generation than past ones, notes Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. A domestic attack, and the image of the falling twin towers in New York City, made for a powerful call to action for many young Americans ahead of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, U.S. leaders could appeal to deeply held ideals like fighting terrorism or building democracy.
There was another common trait shared by the younger generations of both the 1960s and early 2000s: Their lifetimes had been marked by relative peace. In the former’s case, because they had missed the horrors of World War II felt by their parents; in the latter’s, because the Cold War was largely fought between proxies. This generation of young Americans — mostly a part of Generation Z — has never known a world without America being at war, or without the internet livestreaming its horrors.
“Iraq as an experiment failed,” Vatanka says, and in the aftermath, “you can’t mobilize people on the promises of returns sometime in the future when you’re asking for sacrifices now.”
Of course, there could be another reason college students are opposed to military action in Iran: dislike for Donald Trump. The result of this poll closely corresponds with the roughly four-fifths of college students who, in other reported polls, have said they support an impeachment inquiry into the president and believe Trump’s campaign had improper contact with the Russians in 2016. In general, Trump has done less well with college students and adults with a college degree — it’s possible that the lack of support for a war with Iran is really just lack of support for the commander in chief who would be leading that war.
“War is a product. You sell the idea of war,” Vatanka says. If that’s the case, these college students are clear: They aren’t buying what America’s real estate mogul president is selling.