James E. Loewen's 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Taught Me addresses public opinion on the Vietnam War on pages 303-305. By 1971, public opinion had overwhelmingly turned against the war, with 73% of the population favoring withdrawal. Writing from a perspective over 20 years later, when the general consensus was that the war was a mistake, Loewen asked his audiences to breakdown support for withdrawal by education levels. The great majority of audiences assume that higher education correlated with opposition to the war. But in fact, the correlation was the other way. Higher education correlated with support for the war. Lower education correlated with opposition. Loewen reports that his audiences were invariably surprised, that even many professional political scientists are often surprised.
Somehow, though, I doubt that people would be so surprised these days. My guess is, a lot of people would look at our elite's pig-headedness about the Iraq War and guess that they were equally dense about Vietnam.
Speaking for myself, I am not old enough to remember the Vietnam War in any meaningful sense. But I do remember the Vietnam Syndrome that followed the war. Public opinion became deeply skeptical about intervening overseas. Every time an intervention was proposed, people would debate whether it would be "another Vietnam." News columnists argued back and forth, some saying we should learn the lessons of Vietnam, and others saying we had to get over the Vietnam syndrome. I myself, not being old enough to remember the war, or to understand what a live and active memory it was for other people, thought the whole thing was getting tiresome. Over time, military interventions, all low cost to us, became increasingly common, and each time commentators would ask whether this one had finally cured the Vietnam Syndrome.
Well, we have finally found the cure for the Vietnam Syndrome. You just replace it with the Iraq Syndrome, and no one talks about Vietnam anymore. Instead of reassurances that our latest intervention will not be "another Vietnam," we are assured it will not be "another Iraq." And this time, remembering the war, I understand.
Elite opinion and public opinion both made a mistake in supporting the Iraq War (although to what extent public opinion was driven by elite opinion is a different matter). Both eventually recognized their mistake, although elite opinion was remarkably tardy at it. But here is the difference. The general public has actually learned something from our experience. Elite opinion stubbornly resists. Just because we are 0 for 3 in transforming the Middle East by armed force is no reason not to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. Mind you, I am not so naive as to expect this transformation to be permanent. The public unlearned the lessons of Vietnam; eventually it will unlearn the lessons of Iraq as well.
In trying to understand why people with less education were more likely to oppose the Vietnam War, Loewen rejects the most obvious explanation -- that they bore the costs of serving. He then goes on to elaborate psychological explanations of why the more educated supported the war and never mentions that the most obvious one is the reverse -- because they bore no costs of the war, they were free to treat it as an abstract game rather than something played out in flesh and blood. Can there be any doubt our elite is doing just that in its current attitudes toward starting yet another war?
Our elite's reaction to the whole episode reminds me of nothing so much as an episode from Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin makes a snow goon, then more and more until the yard is being overrun with them. In desperation, not knowing what do do, he goes out at night and starts spraying them with a garden hose, cause slippery ice to form all over the porch. At this point, his father intervenes and shuts the whole thing down. Looking back on it, Calvin and Hobbes have this exchange:
Calvin: "Well, Hobbes, I guess there's a moral to all this."
Hobbes: "What's that?"
Calvin: "Snow goons are bad news."
Hobbes: "That lesson certainly ought to be inapplicable elsewhere in life."
Calvin: "I like maxims that don't encourage behavior modification."