Poll Shows Majority of Veterans Doubt Iraq and Afghanistan Wars Worth Fighting

Pew Research conducted a large scale survey of veterans (divided into pre and post 9/11) and civilians on their attitudes toward the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While there have been a number of news reports on the results, they are actually somewhat confusing because the findings in the data aren’t easily boiled down to snappy summaries.

For instance, the headline of this post, which is similar to typical MSM headlines, is technically accurate but somewhat obscures the survey results. From Pew:

Veterans are more supportive than the general public of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even so, they are ambivalent. Just half of all post-9/11 veterans say that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting. A smaller share (44%) says the war in Iraq has been worth it. Only one-third (34%) say both wars have been worth fighting, and a nearly identical share (33%) say neither has been worth the costs.

In other words, the support of both wars is less than robust among those who have seen combat (but many combatants are positive about one of them). And no wonder why. Again from Pew:

44% of post-9/11 veterans say their readjustment to civilian life was difficult. By contrast, just 25% of veterans who served in earlier eras say the same. About half (48%) of all post-9/11 veterans say they have experienced strains in family relations since leaving the military, and 47% say they have had frequent outbursts of anger. One-third (32%) say there have been times where they felt they didn’t care about anything.

Nearly four-in-ten (37%) post-9/11 veterans say that, whether or not they were formally diagnosed, they believe they have suffered from post-traumatic stress (PTS). Among veterans who served prior to 9/11, just 16% say the same.
These psychological and emotional problems are most prevalent among post-9/11 veterans who were in combat. About half of this group (49%) say they have suffered from PTS. And about half (52%) also say they had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences while in the military. Of those who had these types of experiences, three-in-four say they are still reliving them in the form of flashbacks or nightmares.

Overall, about one-in-six post-9/11 veterans (16%) report they were seriously injured while serving in the military, and most of these injuries were combat-related. And about half (47%) say they know and served with someone who was killed while in the military, not significantly different from the share of pre-9/11 veterans (43%) who say the same. The survey finds that post-9/11 veterans who either experienced or were exposed to casualties are more supportive than other post-9/11 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they also report having more difficulty re-entering civilian life.

This comment by reader Richard Kline helps place this poll in context:

But the implication that a majority, and likely a large majority of _recent veterans_ consider the occupations in West Asia as ‘not worth it’ is both new and significant. On the whole, those in the military have been the biggest boosters for the “let’s go get ’em” approach. Those who actually served in the occupations have had the highest support numbers…But that support _has_ shrunk; collapsed would be a better word judging by the numbers.

The military, specifically the men in the ranks, were going to reach their breaking point with extended, frequent deployments, unprospering occupations, and no viable transition out of the military back into an economically depressed society. I’ve read articles in the last few months that suggest serious morale problems for individuals being deployed to Afghanistan at this point; for instance, gallows humor about the _probability_ of losing limbs appears endemic. The guys on the ground now understand that they’re ground chuck for unwinnable but neverending campaigns. I said that this year—well ‘year,’ July 11-Jan 13—was going to be an important deflection point. And it appears that this is the year that the military loses faith in the policy. That’s a very big deal if so, because the gung ho attitude in the ranks has been what, principally, has undercut antiwar sentiment to this point: the folks on point were for it, so it’s been very hard to sell the ‘against it’ position. The wars will end when the military declines to continue fighting them. Be it soon . . . .

The poll confirms Richard’s thesis about a loss of support for the underlying rationale for these engagements:

About half of post-9/11 veterans (51%) say relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism, while four-in-ten endorse the opposite view: that overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorism. The views of the public are nearly identical: 52% say too much force leads to more terrorism, while 38% say using military force is the best approach.

The survey shows the veterans are very keen about unmanned drone attacks, which I find surprising given the high rate of civilian casualties they produce and they way that inevitably poisons local opinion against US operations. Perhaps this is enthusiasm for a new tactic that is clearly less costly in the short term where the long term consequences have yet to be seen.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Jesse

    I’m surprised 50%+ of the public thinks “too much force leads to more terrorism”, given our foreign policy operates under the opposite assumption.

    1. Richard Kline

      So Jesse, I know your comment was a passing one, but for all its compactness there are two points I’d like to unpack from it.

      Those in the public willing to look at the actual facts understand that our assassinate-and-occupy foreign policy is counterproductive in terms of both suppressing active resistance to the US and to forming functional relationships with other peoples. While the media have stifled any real debate on this by refusing to consistently report on the anti- side, there have been enough reports over enough years—ten years—that the substantive failure of policy is clear. We public support for ‘the war on terrorism,’ minority though it is, has nothing to do with _effectiveness_ and everything to do with retaliation, i.e. revenge and imperialism. Some just like these latter objectives; most don’t.

      Second, US foreign policy use of violence has nothing, absolutely _nothing_ to do with terrorism. It has everything to do with raising the cost of defiance by foreign _governments_ to US policy objectives so that most small and medium sized governments find compliance a more palatable option. This has always been the objective, and remains so. ‘Terrorism’ is just an excuse, and such a trivial excuse relative to the larger objective that the fact that drone assassination is not only largely ineffective but directly counter-productive really DOESN’T MATTER TO THE POLICY. Because the policy isn’t about ‘terrorism,’ but about demonstrating the costs of non-compliance. As such, from a realpolitick standpoint present American neo-imperialist policy isn’t as dysfunctional as it appears on the surface. Heinous, reprehensible, unsustainable, self-defeating in the long-run: yes, all of those things, to me, this policy. But from the larger objectives of the policy not flatly dysfunctional.

      What is ‘said’ has no inherent relationship to what is done in state policy. The public never really learns this lesson, but they should. Follow the bombs, the money, and the honey, and what’s what blocks in like a leaf rubbing. And historically, this has always been the case: imperial states are as immoral as the corporations who wanna be like Kingy, the actions have only functional content. That’s my view.

      1. Nathanael

        The interesting thing to me is that we’ve hit the long run. Unsustainable? Unsustained. American threats aren’t what they used to be, since the US lost the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

        Governments may still be intimidated…. or they may not be, what with the US tied down in multiple wars and disintegrating economically at home, and it’s public image destroyed abroad by the Bush administration and then the information revealed in the Wikileaks cable releases. Iran doesn’t seem to be intimidated. China certainly isn’t. Turkey is barely paying attention to the US’s demands at this point.

  2. psychohistorian

    Unmanned drone attacks are weapons of serious repression.

    When will the first one be used in the US? Or am I too late already but we will never hear about it……

    Can we get any sicker as a species? We seem to keep trying…..

    1. Richard Kline

      That’s what got McChrystal fired. He was given a policy; did the analysis; look at the situation on the ground; concluded, rightly, it wouldn’t work but rather the reverse. He was so impolitic not only to tell his superiors just that but to also make allusions to his conclusions with reporters around. The ‘indiscretions’ for which he was officially canned were just an excuse.

      I’m not supporting McChrystal. He wasn’t negative on the war(s), and I’m sure would have had no disagreement with the policy if he’d thought it would have worked: his disagreements appeared to be largely a matter of professional opinion, to me.

  3. Richard Kline

    Well, well, well: _somebody_ doesn’t like these things discussed in public. We knew you were monitoring, boys, but a juvnile hack like that? *tsk* You guys can dish it out, but you sure can’t take it . . . .

  4. jake chase

    Anybody who has ever served in the US Armed Forces knows that no war since the Revolutionary War has been worth fighting, particularly to those compelled to fight it. As for the Revolutionary War, I have my doubts about that one. Who can seriously believe we would not be better off today as a British colony, governed by a Parliament subject to votes of confidence, with a toothless hereditary monarch? Further, we ought to consider a merger with Great Britain now. We could sell some titles of nobility and pay down the debt. The major plus would be the removal from power of all the charlatans now infecting both houses of Congress, the White House, etc. Now if we could just dismantle the federal agencies and the Fed…..

    1. Nathanael

      Many of the Union troops in the Civil War would disagree with you, and really did think that freeing the slaves was worth it. Particularly the black troops.

      A fair number of WWII veterans believe that it was worth it, too.

      The other wars? It is hard to come up with even a plausible argument for most of them. The Phillipine War and the “Indian Wars” are particularly indefensible, so much so they’ve been erased from most of the history books. The war of 1812 and the Mexican War were also indefensible. World War I famously had no value for *any* of the participants, being a pure orgy of destruction….

  5. Woodrow Wilson

    “The survey shows the veterans are very keen about unmanned drone attacks, which I find surprising given the high rate of civilian casualties” –

    Having been in Iraq the first time, when it was popular, you didn’t have to go out on patrol. Now, you have over 10 private military contractors paying kids $120k per year, tax-free, probably with no other options back home.

    Now, Officers (usually junior ranking) have to put on a good face, which I imagine now is especially difficult given the dynamics between then and now. This time around, we have a lot of ground troops doing the fighting, they know there’s an ambush waiting for them somewhere. Anyone that has any basic military training, know that if you get caught in an ambush, you’re toast.

    Here in Massachusetts, we just had our sixth soldier killed from the same town (Plymouth), he was only 24. WTF? For what? Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have long range bombers, don’t have ICBM’s, if they want, they can literally walk across borders and use household items to blow shit up. Freedom and Democracy my ass.

    No, the “war” smells, and after reading the foreign press, and thanks to FOIA, it smells really bad:


    That’s ok though, because BP & Shell are very friendly to CONgress:


    1. Richard Kline

      Yeah, Plymouth. I read the notices in home town papers of dead soldiers regularly to remaind myself who’s on the wrong end of the point our policies make. They’re most always from places like Plymouth. Or Northern Michigan. Or Iowa. Or Arkansas. Or Northern California in a little place that didn’t get villas built over it. Or from Fontana. Or Compton. Or Tampa. They’re never from Brookline. Or Georgetown. Or Santa Barbara. Or Los Altos. Or Medina.

      It smells, in a word; as you say.

  6. Robert Asher

    “These psychological and emotional problems are most prevalent among post-9/11 veterans who were in combat. About half of this group (49%) say they have suffered from PTS.”

    These findings are consistent with the studies of Vietnam veterans, including the famous 1990 JAMA article. While it is hardly surprising to find that exposure to combat is stressful, the effort expended to prove the negative hypothesis by apologists for our war culture are continuous. We do need studies about PTS resulting from watching President Obama talk. I have gone AWOL on him.

  7. Cloud

    What’s the deal with the seeming obligation to write things like “nearly four-in-ten (37%)” instead of just “37%”, in reporting poll findings? Don’t we all know how fractions work?

    1. Nathanael

      No. In fact, I believe studies have shown that less than half of Americans understand fractions.

      Somewhat more understand percentages, but still.

Comments are closed.