US veterans who served after 9/11 are different from their predecessors

Questions of sacrifice.
Questions of sacrifice.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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War is hell. But some US military veterans enjoy the benefit of believing the fights they sacrificed so much for were worthwhile, like those who fought in World War II and were dubbed “the greatest generation” after having battled Adolf Hitler and fascism.

That’s not the case when it comes to many veterans who’ve been engaged in US military operations since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however.

A new Pew Research Center poll of more than 1,200 former service members engaged after 9/11 shows that the newer generations, who have had a different military experience, tend to view US policy abroad skeptically. ”About one-in-five veterans today served on active duty after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Their collective experiences—from deployment to combat to the transition back to civilian life—are markedly different from those who served in previous eras,” the report notes.

Unlike many veterans of yore, those who’ve served in wars since 9/11 were more likely to be deployed more than once and much more commonly saw combat. That perhaps helps explain why they view their nation’s foreign military engagements critically.

“Because they are more likely to have been deployed and to have seen combat, post-9/11 veterans are also more likely to bear the scars of battle, whether physical or not,” the researchers noted.  The poll, conducted ahead of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, shows that about half of the respondents experienced trauma after returning home.

And most post-9/11 American vets don’t think the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan are worthwhile when balancing costs and benefits. About two-thirds of them, or 64%, say they think the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, while 33% say it was. Likewise, a majority who responded, or 58%, said the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth the price, while 38% believed to the contrary.

Political ideology played some role in veterans’ perspectives when it came to these questions, the pollsters note. Of those who identified as Republican or right-leaning, 45% deemed the war in Iraq worthwhile; only 15% of Democrats or left-leaning vets agreed. When it came to Afghanistan, 46% of conservatives approved the fight, while only 26% of progressives did.

Views on American military involvement in Syria were also more negative than positive. However, pollsters note that they surveyed respondents before Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from certain regions of the country last month, so some views may have changed. Among veterans, 42% said the campaign in Syria has been worth it, while 55% thought it was not.

The poll also noted another metric that’s worth reflecting upon ahead of Veterans Day. Whether or not they viewed American engagement in a particular region as worthwhile, veterans overwhelmingly felt pride in their service. More than two-thirds, or 68%, said they were “frequently” proud of having been in the military, with 22% saying they “sometimes” were.