Expert Commentary

The impact of local combat casualties on support for the war in Afghanistan

2012 study from Boston University and the University of Minnesota published in Public Opinion Quarterly on reporting and attitudes about Afghanistan.


Americans tend to assess the costs of war less by monetary measures than by human fatalities; as of November 2012, the overall death toll for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEP) in Afghanistan reached 2,030. However, losses are not uniformly distributed throughout the country.  For example, according to 2010 Census figures and state data, Arizona had slightly more losses than Massachusetts (46 versus 44), yet Massachusetts has more than twice the population of Arizona.

Research suggests that areas with a relatively high number of war fatalities hear more about the conflicts through friends and local media coverage of area soldiers. This detailed, emotive reporting on fatalities differs from a national publication’s focus on a war’s overall combat strategy and specific battles. To what extent does local and national news coverage influence an individual’s knowledge of — and support for — military conflicts?

A 2012 experimental study from Boston University and the University of Minnesota published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “How Citizens Respond to Combat Casualties: The Differential Impact of Local Casualties on Support for the War in Afghanistan,” analyzed how local war fatalities influenced civilian support for the war in Afghanistan.

In the study, 849 subjects were recruited to take an online survey using Mechanical Turk. Participants were randomly assigned one of four versions of a news story about a war casulty: In the first, the fallen soldier was said to be from the respondent’s home state but the story had a national perspective and focused on battle details and larger strategic issues. The second was the same but omitted the soldier’s home state. The third version was local-style story that focused on emotional details of the life of the lost soldier, who was said to be from the participant’s home state. The final version of the story was also local and emotional, but said the soldier was from another state.

The study’s key findings include:

  • More than half (53%) of participants who read a national news story about a casualty whose home state was not specified reported that they opposed the war. This increased to 62% if the participant and the fallen soldier came from the same state.
  • When the soldier in the local-style news story was from the subject’s home state, 62% of respondents opposed the war. The researchers note that “additional personal details and interviews with family members and friends had no additional impact on increasing war opposition beyond that generated by identifying the soldier as from a respondent’s home state.”
  • Only 50% of respondents said they opposed the war when the deceased soldier’s home state was different from theirs, despite the humanizing details and emotional tone of the local-style reporting.

The researchers conclude that the local connection invoked by learning of the death of a soldier from one’s home state rather than the type of news coverage “appears to have the greatest effect on Americans’ evaluations of the war in Afghanistan.”

Tags: war

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