Editor’s Note: This editorial was published in the September/October issue of the magazine.
An important new consensus is forming against America’s endless wars, shaped by an important constituency: the military veterans who have sacrificed so much to fight them. A Pew Research poll of veterans released contained results that contradict the cherished talking points of the bipartisan Washington foreign policy blob that sees “leadership” and “engagement” as being synonymous with bombing and regime change.
Sixty-four percent of veterans said the war in Iraq was not worth fighting when the costs to America are weighed against the ostensible benefits to the region and our national security. Just 33 percent concluded that George W. Bush’s Baghdad democracy adventure was worthwhile in retrospect.
That’s not much different than the prevailing view among the American public, where 62 percent said the Iraq war wasn’t worth it versus 32 percent who still think it should have been fought. Perhaps more surprisingly, 58 percent of veterans believe the Afghanistan war—now America’s longest, despite two consecutive presidents of both parties advocating retrenchment—wasn’t worth fighting. That’s only a point behind the 59 percent of Americans as a whole who say the same.
“Veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are no more supportive of those engagements than those who did not serve in these wars,” write Pew’s Ruth Igielnik and Kim Parker. “And views do not differ based on rank or combat experience.”
Our veterans take a similarly skeptical view of intervention in Syria, with 42 percent calling it a worthwhile military campaign to 55 percent who say it was not. All this comes on the heels of a Military Times poll in which nearly half of active duty personnel surveyed expressed concern about being drawn into another major conflict while majorities suggested neither Iraq nor Afghanistan were important threats to American national security today.
Republican military veterans are still considerably more likely to find our wars of choice worth fighting than their Democratic counterparts. But laptop bombardiers have too often hidden behind the brave men and women actually doing the fighting in far-flung places instead of justifying policies that have produced chaos and often empowered the very Islamic militants we sought to destroy.
Afghanistan morphed from a just and necessary response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks into a nation-building exercise without end. Our troops performed admirably and accomplished the part of the mission that was actually possible. But turning Afghanistan into a functioning democracy or reliable ally in the fight against terrorism was never a militarily attainable goal.
Iraq was an ill-conceived intervention from the start, diverting both our nation’s justified anger and military resources away from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, launching a preventive war to disarm the dictator of weapons he did not even have. The consequences were unintended, but predictable—and widely predicted. A war sold as necessary to prevent more Americans from being killed in the aftermath of 9/11 instead put our troops at risk preventing Iraqis from killing each other. Into the resultant political vacuum jumped ISIS, which bore a closer resemblance to our attackers than did the regime that was toppled.
Next came Libya, Syria, and a host of presidential wars Congress never even authorized in the first place, despite the unambiguous text of the Constitution. In fact, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers explicitly rejected our role in the continuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a ghastly policy impossible to square with “America First.”
The men and women on the frontline have seen the results of these mishaps firsthand. They know how the realities of these wars have differed from the abstract theories of the neoconservatives and liberal hawks, concocted in think tank conference rooms far removed from the real world. It’s time to heed their counsel more and the Beltway “experts’” less.