National Security


Ten years ago this week, the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan. And today, here are some things we can say about attitudes toward that war and the war in Iraq. Most Americans aren't paying attention and about a third of the men and women who've served in the military since 9/11 don't think the wars were worth it. Those are just some results of a new survey by the Pew Research Center. As NPR's Tom Bowman explains, civilians and members of the military view war and service in very different ways.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Pew Center talked to nearly 4,000 people, split almost evenly between military veterans and civilians. Study editor Paul Taylor wanted to explore this unique moment in American history.

PAUL TAYLOR: We've never had sustained combat for a full decade, and we've never fought a war in which such a small share of the population has carried the fight.

BOWMAN: Just half of one percent of Americans have served on active duty during the last decade. Compare that to the nine percent who wore the uniform during World War II. Americans still hold the military in the highest regard. Signing up for the military is another matter. More than 80 percent of veterans would recommend a military career to a young person close to them. Among civilians, that number drops to about half that. Civilians are much more ambivalent about military service. Again, Paul Taylor of the Pew Center.

TAYLOR: They recognize that there are burdens borne and, frankly, they don't necessarily want their kith and kin and folks close to them to bear those burdens.

BOWMAN: Should the American people be troubled by that? Is the military becoming a separate part of American society?

TAYLOR: There is a gap. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is, in effect, frankly, above my pay grade. It's an interesting question.

BOWMAN: And that question was posed to veterans. Eight in 10 say the American public doesn't understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families. Those civilians polled acknowledge that soldiers and their families make a lot of sacrifices, but only one-quarter see that as unfair. A large majority of civilians see it as just being part of the military. Another sign of disconnect, the public isn't paying much attention to Afghanistan or Iraq.

About 25 percent say they're following the wars closely - that's dropped in half from a few years ago. That comes as no surprise to some service members. Marine Sergeant Jon Moulder is one of them. Back in June, he was patrolling in Afghanistan when he spoke with NPR about the lack of interest back home.

JON MOULDER: We're starting to fall to the wayside. This has been going on for so long. Hell, you know, it's America's longest conflict running to date. Kind of like the bastard children of our generation.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Moulder is part of a small fraction of Americans who serve. And that troubles Martin Cook, a civilian professor of military ethics at the Naval War College.

MARTIN COOK: It becomes much more easy to deploy U.S. forces in tough environments for long periods of time because the vast majority of Americans don't feel they have any skin in the game. And I've often speculated, could we have fought wars for 10 years if this was a draftee army? And I doubt it.

BOWMAN: The strategy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is another cause for disagreement between the civilians and veterans. It's the question of nation-building - that's everything from constructing schools in Iraq and Afghanistan to training and equipping their militaries. Fifty-nine percent of veterans support this, just 45 percent of the civilians do. Paul Taylor of the Pew Center says civilians likely focus on the billions of dollars spent to rebuild places like Afghanistan. Troops focus less on the money and more on the results.

TAYLOR: The troops who are actually over there see the value of the military strategy, that one goes hand-in-hand with the other.

BOWMAN: And the troops likely see nation-building as a faster way home from war, a war that even veterans are growing tired of, according to the Pew study.

TAYLOR: It is notable that the warriors, after 10 years of battle, are ambivalent at best about the whole enterprise they've been engaged in.

BOWMAN: About one-third of veterans say neither war was worth fighting. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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