The New York Times

Trump's Opposition to 'Endless Wars' Appeals to Those Who Fought Them

The New York Times - logo The New York Times 2/11/2019 4:22:00 Jennifer Steinhauer
a person walking down the street: Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. Polls show that a growing number of veterans have become disenchanted with the post-9/11 wars that continue in the Middle East. © Al Drago for The New York TimesAl Asad Air Base in Iraq. Polls show that a growing number of veterans have become disenchanted with the post-9/11 wars that continue in the Middle East.

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 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 Mr. 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 American 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 American troops to Afghanistan and then Iraq.

The shifting attitudes of so many who served in the wars help explain why Mr. 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 Mr. Trump calls "endless wars."

Among veterans, 64 percent say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, slightly higher than the 62 percent of civilians who feel the same way. Disagreement with the conflict in Afghanistan is lower - 58 percent of veterans and 59 percent of the general public believe that was not a worthy war. While some veterans support continued military engagement in Syria, more than half - 55 percent - oppose it.

Veterans have supported Mr. Trump more than the general population. About 56 percent of veterans said they approved of the job he was doing as president, compared with 42 percent of the population overall, according to a poll by The Associated Press last year, consistent with other poll findings. Veterans like Mr. 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 United States forces abroad.

a group of people on a rocky hill: Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of veterans say the Afghanistan war is not a worthy one. © Sergey Ponomarev for The New York TimesSoldiers from the 101st Airborne Division in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of veterans say the Afghanistan war is not a worthy one.

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 Qaeda, 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, Mr. 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 G. 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."

Amber Smith sitting on a bench: © Eric Thayer for The New York Times"We have learned at this point there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan," said Amber Smith, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, as with many policy areas, the president's words are not always consistent with his administration's actions. About 200,000 American troops remain deployed worldwide, about the same as when Mr. 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 D. Eaton, a retired three-star Army officer who oversaw the training of Iraqi troops and who was an early critic of the policies of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "What are you going to say to their families? Throwing good resources after bad is no way to run a country."

The regret over the wars among these veterans is distinct from the feelings of veterans of the Vietnam era. Many served in that war only because they were drafted, and it prompted widespread public protests.

Veterans of all ages have soured on the latest conflicts, which unlike Vietnam have been fought with an all-volunteer force that seems proud of its decision to choose public service and feels embraced by American civilians regardless of whether they supported the wars in the Middle East.

a person standing on a sidewalk: © Amanda Lucier for The New York Times"I kind of developed a cathartic bitterness," said Daniel Schick, who served in Iraq. "It was a waste of blood and treasure."

While the vast majority of veterans have returned stateside to productive and happy lives, many who served are concerned that the suicide rate among veterans outpaces that of the civilian population and is rising faster among younger veterans. Thousands who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with life-altering injuries that would have killed veterans of previous wars. And homelessness is a stubborn problem - only 7 percent of Americans are veterans, but they make up about 11 percent of the homeless population.

But, just as important, many veterans say their views of the conflicts have been shaped by the lack of a satisfying outcome.

"I wanted out of Podunk; I wanted upward mobility," said Daniel Schick, 34, explaining why he joined the Army before going to Iraq, where he lost seven members of his unit in one deployment. He now lives in Portland, Ore., and has a temporary position with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

"I kind of developed a cathartic bitterness," he said, reflecting on his service. "It was a waste of blood and treasure and destroyed what little infrastructure that the Iraqi people had."

Such sentiments are not limited to enlisted personnel and lower-level officers.

In recent years, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general who helped write the military's counterinsurgency manual, and Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander of Joint Special Operations Command who then led coalition troops in Afghanistan, have called the Iraq invasion a mistake, as have other former officers.

"I think there is a frustration that Iraq and Afghanistan didn't turn out more like Germany," said Dana J. H. Pittard, a retired Army major general who led combat troops in Iraq, referring to the successful victory and aftermath of World War II. "Afghanistan is still a mess. On the Iraq side, we are frustrated now about why we went there in the first place. What people see is a state that is not as stable as it should be. Afghanistan doesn't look like it was worth it because of way it turned out."

While early opposition to the war in Iraq focused on the faulty intelligence cited to begin the invasion, opinion across a broader spectrum has been soured by the failure of the military - and the government - to secure a reliable peace and the failure of politicians in both Kabul and Baghdad to build stable governments that can contain deadly domestic violence after years of American support.

Support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was already declining a decade after the terrorist attacks on the United States, with Pew finding in 2011 that about one-third of veterans of the post-9/11 cohort believed those conflicts were a bad idea. Disagreement with the policy was found to have almost doubled in the more recent Pew poll among this cohort. The latest Pew study found that neither rank nor combat experience differentiated veterans' views of the wars, though partisan differences were clear. The poll found that 45 percent of Republican veterans versus 15 percent of Democratic veterans say the war in Iraq was worth fighting, mirroring party gaps in the civilian population.

For every veteran in Congress like Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who has consistently advocated "military solutions," there are now those like Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado, who view the war in Iraq as an error and Afghanistan with ambivalence.

Mr. Crow recently returned to Afghanistan as a congressman and said that "it brought up a lot of memories for me, thinking about the time we spent there and the missed opportunities and wondering about things we could have done a different way."

This year, VoteVets, a left-leaning organization started in 2006 to elect Democrats to Congress who would end the "endless wars," and Concerned Veterans for America, which has long been VoteVets' nemesis, joined forces to lobby lawmakers to end the post-Sept. 11 conflicts.

"Donald Trump is a big reason" for the two groups to now work together, said Jon Soltz, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq before helping found VoteVets, which struggled to build support for its antiwar agenda in its early years, even among Democrats. "He stood up and beat Jeb Bush by saying the Iraq war was a total joke. I don't like him. He blocked us on Twitter, and we are going to work to beat him in 2020. But you can't deny that Donald Trump trashing these wars was a game-changer for us all."

Many veterans find this dynamic frustrating.

Amber Smith, 37, was a fourth-generation service member who served in the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2008. Like many other veterans, Ms. Smith saw a greater purpose in the war in Afghanistan than the one in Iraq, given the Taliban's role harboring Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But as with many veterans, that purpose ended in her mind long ago.

"We gave it nearly two decades, thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, and we have learned at this point there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan," said Ms. Smith, who served for one year in the Trump administration in the Defense Department. "There are a few veterans in Congress who are very pro-military-involvement in the Middle East. Well, they already fought that fight. They are not going back. As we have seen, when Trump talks about reducing troops, everyone in D.C. becomes unhinged. Unfortunately, the U.S. service members pay the consequences for that."

Those who have served - voluntarily - in the military since Sept. 11, 2001, "served primarily out of patriotism," said David W. Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general and former top commander in Afghanistan whose children have also served in the military. "Every one of them knew they were volunteering for war. But there is a gnawing issue that we are still losing people."


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