On Veterans Day, Ask 'Why?'

On Veterans Day, Ask 'Why?'
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Going to war is the most important decision a country makes. Families will be separated, limbs will be lost, and young people will die. Even when hostilities are fought abroad, war brings home significant social and political challenges. 

This Veterans Day, we reflect upon the sacrifice and honor of those who have served this country in uniform. One way we recognize and respect that service is to ensure that our foreign policy is aimed at why they serve — keeping America safe — and doesn’t unnecessarily risk their lives.

To this end, the Charles Koch Institute recently partnered with RealClearPolitics to poll civilians and veterans/active military members about service, sacrifice, and American foreign policy. Sixteen years into a generational war fought without any temporal or spatial boundaries, congressional oversight, or a realistic victory scenario presents an opportune moment for much-needed introspection. 

Our polling provides thought-provoking insights into America’s broad-ranging military ventures. First and foremost, the survey data indicates a robust diversity of opinion about the costs and consequences of America’s interventions. When asked if additional military force would make America more or less safe, 40 percent of veteran/military respondents thought “more safe” while 36 percent responded to the contrary. Among civilian respondents, only 27 percent of those surveyed replied in the affirmative, whereas 41 percent answered “less safe” and 18 percent figured “neither, nor.” 

Small wonder Americans of all stripes are weary of intervention. Our polling suggests 61 percent of veterans/military believe the armed forces are currently overextended. Yet despite expensive and exhausting military ventures, some 71 percent of veterans/military and civilians alike feel that the number of America’s adversaries has swelled over the past 20 years. Yet those who question the wisdom of deep engagement may take heart. A clear majority of veteran/military respondents did not doubt the patriotism of those Americans who question our current strategies.

Overwhelmingly, respondents from that community and the public at large believe that foreign interventions demand a clear exit strategy. Both groups have clearly digested our failure to achieve this goal over the past 20 years.

Underlying these findings are the costs this country has paid in blood and treasure. In addition to mounting overseas contingency expenses, Pentagon base budgeting that outstrips Cold War spending, and the plausible growth of the Department of Veterans Affairs bottom line, there is an important human toll.

Since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, over 7,000 servicemen and women have made the ultimate sacrifice. Competing studies suggest that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of wounded have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The VA abruptly stopped publishing figures relating to non-fatal war casualties in March of 2013.) Roughly 1 million vets have been added to the VA’s compensation lists since 2012. Controlling for age and gender, since 2001 the risk of suicide is 21 percent greater for veterans. On any given night, some 40,000 vets may sleep on the streets

Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to our data, 77 percent of veterans/military (and, laudably, some 67 percent of the American public) feel that the average civilian does not understand the toll deployment takes on service members and their families. 

Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of these costs, America’s armed services enjoy consistent and widespread admiration. A recent Pew study suggests no occupational group — not teachers, doctors, scientists, or engineers — enjoys greater approval. 

But for many of those 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this blanket reverence poses tough questions. Writing in War on the Rocks, David Barno and Nora Bensahel recently offered a primer on “How to Talk to a Veteran” for those millions of Americans who have no association with the military. One might reasonably wonder why such a piece should be necessary nearly two decades into our nation’s longest period of sustained conflict. Yet, as the authors note, “fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military today, and they are growing increasingly distinct and isolated from the remaining 99 percent.” 

What are the implications for a society that struggles to connect with the experiences and obligations of an overextended and isolated warrior caste? Perhaps on this Veterans Day, it might simply prove most patriotic to ask ourselves what we ask of them and whether it makes sense.

William Ruger is vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and a veteran of the Afghanistan War.

Reid Smith manages foreign policy initiatives at the Charles Koch Institute.

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