US shift on conflicts appealing to some vets
WASHINGTON - Tyler Wade was awarded the Purple Heart while serving in Afghanistan, and says he is “proud of everything” he did during his service. He also believes the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were a mistake, as do a growing number of veterans - from retired generals to those who served across the enlisted ranks, from supporters of President Donald Trump to “resistance” Democrats.
“All in all, it is a lot of wasted lives and money and time and effort spent to accomplish a goal we never accomplished,” said Wade, 31, who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during his five years in the Marines and is now a nursing student in Las Vegas.
Nearly two decades after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, polls show that a majority of all veterans have grown disenchanted with the continuing wars, even if the national security elite in both parties continue to press for an U.S. military presence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The view is in stark contrast to widespread support for the wars across the military and veterans community - and the general population - when President George W. Bush first sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan and then Iraq.
The shifting attitudes of so many who served in the wars help explain why Trump has support among veterans as he brings troops home and has resisted military action against other nations. There is a slow but steadily increasing alliance of those on the left and the right on Capitol Hill to curb what Trump calls “endless wars.”
Among veterans, 64% say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, slightly higher than the 62% of civilians who feel the same way. Disagreement with the conflict in Afghanistan is lower - 58% of veterans and 59% of the general public believe that was not a worthy war. While some veterans support continued military engagement in Syria, more than half - 55% - oppose it.
Veterans have supported Trump more than the general population. About 56% of veterans said they approved of the job he was doing as president, compared with 42% of the population overall, according to a poll by The Associated Press last year, consistent with other poll findings. Veterans like Trump’s vow to support their care and bolster military spending, and in some cases they agree with his “America First” foreign policy calling for a smaller footprint for U.S. forces abroad.
For some veterans, especially those who identify themselves as liberal, the killing last weekend of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi underscored, rather than weakened, their views.
Peter Lucier is a law student in St. Louis who recalled cheering for the killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, when he was a 22-year-old Marine about to be deployed. Now, he says, “I am trying to get out of the killing business.”
“Also, the country is different,” he continued. “It’s been almost 10 years since we killed bin Laden and we are still in these places. We are not moving the ball forward.”
In the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump performed especially well in counties that had a higher than average number of service members killed in action, even when adjusted for other factors in the 2016 election.
“For conservative-leaning veterans, we signed up to defend our country,” said Dan Caldwell, a veteran and the senior adviser at Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group with substantial backing from the billionaire Charles Koch that focuses heavily on withdrawing forces from around the world. “We didn’t sign up to build girls schools in the Al Anbar province. We had friends killed or wounded in action; it wasn’t clear for what.”
Yet, as with many policy areas, Trump’s words are not always consistent with his administration’s actions. About 200,000 U.S. troops remain deployed worldwide, about the same as when Trump took office. After originally announcing a full troop withdrawal from Syria - and abandoning Kurdish allies, for which he was widely criticized in public by many national security experts and in private even by some in the military - he opted to leave some troops in Syria.
“You get the argument that we have invested so much in treasure and blood, why would you abandon the project after we have had so many men and women wounded?” said Paul Eaton, a retired two-star Army officer who oversaw the training of Iraqi troops and who was an early critic of the policies of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “What are you going to say to their families? Throwing good resources after bad is no way to run a country.”