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Larry Minear: U.S. troops’ views of Afghan venture

September 30, 2009
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ORLEANS, Mass.

AS THE OBAMA administration struggles with whether to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan, news coverage has highlighted slippage in support among the American public for the war. The erosion reflects a worrisome spike in U.S. casualties and the weaknesses of the Afghan government demonstrated by last month’s flawed elections.

Conspicuously absent from the public debate are the views of U.S. soldiers back from Afghanistan and Iraq, those currently there, and those poised for deployment or redeployment. In one sense, this is as it should be. Members of the armed forces serving in these conflicts have exhibited great professionalism in keeping political opinions to themselves. Yet many have strong views about the rationale for U.S. engagement, the strategies and tactics, the adequacy of their training and equipment, and the length and frequency of deployments. Whatever their views, the perspectives of those in harm’s way deserve to be taken more fully into account in decision-making about the war.

The views of veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq are sharply etched in the thousand-plus dossiers available in the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project. Amplifying them are interviews with scores of soldiers I have conducted for a forthcoming book.

Veterans’ views vary widely. Many of those interviewed are more convinced of the rightness and urgency of doing battle in Afghanistan than in Iraq, although a fair number do not resonate to the Global War on Terror rationale offered by George W. Bush’s administration for either conflict. Some veterans in each conflict have become more convinced about the necessity of U.S. military involvement as a result of their own combat or their hearts-and-minds work. Others who were firmly committed to the cause when deployed have now become tough critics.

Views also vary among veterans’ groups and retired military officers. The two wars have spawned new organizations of veterans and their families. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, strong supporters of U.S. wars over the decades, now share the stage with an array of groups, some opposing the conflicts. Military officers, once retired and no longer required to keep their views to themselves, have articulated their sentiments as media commentators and rallied publicly around their candidates of choice.

As the Obama administration considers its options in Afghanistan, the factors to be weighed are legion. Boosting U.S. troop strength would work serious hardship on many American families and communities. That likelihood is reflected in the comment of one spouse in a focus group of family members convened in late 2006. Her marriage, she confided, had barely survived her husband’s first deployment to Afghanistan as a member of a New England National Guard unit. She doubted that it would survive a second.

The issue, of course, is not whether an escalation of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would cause hardship but rather whether the hardship in pursuit of objectives that are themselves still being defined would be worth the costs: national and individual, long-term and short-term, social and economic. Policy-makers may balk at the proposition that a war could be so costly that it should not be waged at all. However, the experience described first-hand by the veterans is so wrenching that it underscores the need to rethink the traditional cost/benefit calculus before committing additional troops.

In recent weeks, President Obama has begun to demonstrate a welcome wariness about whether to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan. “I have to exercise skepticism any time I send a single young man or woman in uniform into harm’s way,” he says, “because I’m the one who is answerable to their parents if they don’t come home.” His predecessor, visiting the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., last December, said, “Being commander in chief of the military is the thing I’ll miss most. Coming to Walter Reed is a reminder of why I’ll miss it.”

The experience of the 2 million-plus U.S. troops who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001, does not provide the president with an unequivocal answer to the question of whether to augment the U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and, if so, by what number. From the many opinions in the interviews cited in my study, however, a cautionary note sounded by Marine Sgt. Adam Paulson seems particularly worth pondering. Asked how his tours of duty in the two theaters have affected his thinking, he replied, “The experience makes me a whole lot more against war in general. It would be a last resort for me. The first-person perspective,” he concludes, “has definitely changed my life. How big a responsibility it is to declare war or wage war!”

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