A week ago, the Washington Post ran a long story discussing the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on military personnel who had served in combat tours. The story was primarily based on a detailed survey administered in late 2013 in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The Post story was titled "A Legacy of Pain and Pride," but it focused on the "pain" side of the ledger. And, to be sure, there is much to tell there with respondents reporting on the physical, emotional, psychological, and relational costs of combat service.
But what struck me most was with the "pride" side, which itself seemed to be a good news/bad news kind of story.
On the good news, the military were overwhelmingly (87 percent) proud of their service and overwhelmingly (89 percent) inclined to "do it again" if they could go back in time -- even despite the many battle scars physical and psychological. This is a strained and in some ways hurting group, but it is not a group that is sullen or alienated from the military profession itself.
Likewise, while the veterans express ambivalence about the value of the wars, they still are markedly more supportive of them than the general public. Forty-four percent of the combat vets said the Iraq war was worth fighting compared to 38 percent of the general public; 53 percent of the vets said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting compared to 30 percent of the general public. (The Post story claimed that "only 35 percent believe both wars were worth fighting," a cross-tabulation not reported in the topline results here.) To be sure, there was plenty of anti-war sentiment to be found, especially on Iraq -- 34 percent were strongly of the view that the Iraq war was not worth fighting -- but also plenty of pro-war sentiment -- 28 percent were strongly of the view that the Iraq war was worth fighting.
Perhaps most surprisingly, given the way that the popular media demonizes President George W. Bush for how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars unfolded, the combat vets have a strikingly high estimation of the former president. Fully 72 percent of officers said that Bush was a good commander-in-chief. Only 48 percent of officers think President Barack Obama is doing a good job as commander-in-chief. Obama scores even lower overall approval rating, only 38 percent among this group. (The survey did not ask for an overall approval rating for Bush.)
The ambivalent appraisal of the current president is not, however, the most worrying finding. On the bad news side of the ledger, I would pay even more attention to the signs of possible budding alienation from civilian society (as distinct from alienation from the military profession). Right now the signs are more harbingers of possible future problems than indicators of current difficulties, but they are worth watching.
It is perhaps understandable, but nevertheless notable, that these veterans think they are more patriotic (63 percent) and have "better moral and ethical values" (54 percent) than average Americans. While 53 percent of combat vets believe that Americans' respect for the military is genuine, 42 percent say Americans are "just saying what people want to hear." Those numbers could well grow with time, since 69 percent say they sometimes felt like Americans didn't understand their experience in war (and, on this, they were doubtless correct since it is so hard for civilians to comprehend combat from afar).
Hedging against the drift towards alienation is a healthy awareness that the average American appreciates the service of the military -- 71 percent of the combat vets agreed with that. And, most surprisingly, given the prominent pundit voices deriding such public expressions as empty gestures, 70 percent said they liked seeing yellow ribbons as expressions of support.
But the risks are real because of the looming conflict between veteran expectations and fiscal realities. When asked directly, 83 percent said that military benefits should not be pared back even in the face of fiscal constraints. In this respect, the military is very much like every other segment of American society: they do not want to be the bill-payer for redressing the fiscal imbalance.
Yet some paring of benefits may be unavoidable and, if the Post-Kaiser poll is a reliable indication, that could prove wrenching for the military. A military that flirts with feelings of alienation from civilian society could interpret the cutbacks as a sign of disrespect and ingratitude.
It is well worth keeping an eye on the way the military thinks of civilian society and vice-versa. The most systematic information we have on the subject is quite dated. The study by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies on the civil-military gap that I co-directed is over 15 years old now. It is high time someone did a follow-up. The Post-Kaiser poll is a good start.
By the way, surveying the military can be very challenging, so I am inclined to give this sampling design the benefit of the doubt. It took more than four months of phone calls -- August 1 to Dec. 15 -- to reach the 819 combat veteran respondents. A lot can happen in that time. If the poll had queried about how respondents evaluated President Obama's handling of Syria, of instance, would it make sense to group a respondent reached in the first week of August with a respondent reached in the first week of September with a respondent reached in the first week of October? But the questionnaire did not have many such time-sensitive questions so on the whole it provides a reasonable snapshot of one important segment of the military.
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