Skip to main content

Public Feels Military's Pain But Won't Share It

A new study, released on the 10th anniversary of the start of America's longest war, highlights the widening disconnect between the nation's troops and its civilians.

Americans for generations have fretted over the relationship between the military and civilian society, over how the one institution fits within the other, how the broader population receives and perceives its soldiers. But as the U.S. approaches the 10th anniversary of the launch of the war in Afghanistan this week, this much is novel: The longest war in U.S. history is being fought by the smallest percentage of its population.

The resulting implications — which Jeff Shear touched on for earlier this year — are unsettling. As these wars have moved off of the front page, and as the soldiers fighting them have moved into sixth and seventh deployments, is a disconnect evolving between the country’s servicemen and civilians? Can the U.S. make good decisions as a country about war when so few feel personally invested? And what does it mean to welcome home a soldier when so few people really know where he or she has been?

The country plows toward this latest anniversary with retiring Navy Adm. Mike Mullen’s observation about the nation’s civilians ringing in the air: "I fear they do not know us."

That quote from the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to this year’s graduating class at West Point prefaced a massive new study of veteran and civilian public opinion in the post-Sept. 11 era released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center. The quote also popped up repeatedly during a discussion Pew hosted Wednesday to publicize the results.

The center surveyed nearly 2,000 veterans and as many civilians about their expectations of each other, their views on who should (and has been) carrying the burden during wartime and whether these wars have been “worth it.”

One of the central findings was that post-Sept. 11 veterans appear to agree with Mullen. And — more surprisingly — the public does, too.

Eighty-four percent of modern-era veterans said the general public has little or no understanding of the problems they face. Among the public, 71 percent agreed. This raises the awkward question of whether it’s possible to “appreciate” service if you don’t really understand it.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Several factors likely are at play. In the all-volunteer professional military, soldiers are serving longer tours and aren’t as quick to return to the communities from which they came. In this sense, they become less visible to civilians. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are also distinctly unconventional, making it harder for civilians to understand not just what deployed soldiers are going through, but also literally what they’re doing. Are they manning Humvees or programming drones or supervising school construction in a combat zone?

What civilians say they do know is that soldiers and their families have had to make a lot of sacrifices since 9/11 (83 percent feel this way, compared to 43 percent when the same question is asked about the American people). Among people who feel the military has made more sacrifices than the public, 26 percent described this as “unfair.” But 70 percent felt the added burden was “just part of being in the military.”

This attitude contrasts sharply with past moments in American history. In 1930, Congress created a War Policies Commission that was charged, among other things, with considering ways to equalize the burdens of war across the population. The commission even weighed amendments to the U.S. Constitution to make this happen. Nothing ever came of the idea.

“But how far we have come in 80 years from the time when shared sacrifice in wartime was a concept that many hoped to enshrine in the Constitution,” said author Rick Atkinson, who moderated the discussion Wednesday.

This history lesson, however, poses yet another question: Is it such a bad thing to disproportionately place those burdens on the people who have volunteered to take them? Pew found overwhelming support, among veterans and civilians, for continuing the country’s professional military policy. That’s also another way of saying Americans don’t want to go back to the draft.

Civilians hold the military in higher regard than any other institution in the country. And by even higher numbers, they say they’re proud of America’s soldiers — even as 45 percent of the public believes neither of these wars has been worth the cost. But then there is this interesting statistic, which gets at what may be the central disconnect between a public that is happy to thank troops for their service, and a sense of what that service really entails: 91 percent of Americans are proud of soldiers, but just 48 percent would advise someone close to them to join their ranks.

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.