In a poll conducted by the Washington Post, veterans weighed in on their attitudes regarding the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These poll results are an embarrassment for those politicians who urged Americans to go to war.
Here’s the bottom line:
Despite their overwhelming pride and negligible regret, the veterans look back on the necessity of the conflicts with decidedly mixed feelings. Only 53 percent of them believe the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, and just 44 percent say the same for Iraq. Slightly more than a third — almost 900,000 vets — “strongly” believe the Iraq war was not worth it.
Those figures are moderately higher than the population as a whole, but they nonetheless reveal a fundamental nuance in attitudes among the all-volunteer military: Many among this generation of vets regard their service as a profession — almost half signed up intending to serve for at least 20 years — and they have divorced their individual missions from the worthiness of the overall wars.
“Right, wrong or indifferent, it was something we signed up to do,” said Kenneth Harmon, a retired Marine master sergeant who served for 23 years and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. “It was our job. We got orders. We followed them.”
In other words, about half of the soldiers thought that each of these wars was not worth while. That is a stunning percentage for wars that took such a physical, emotional and financial toll on the United States. For instance:
More than 600,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have become partially or totally disabled from physical or psychological wounds are receiving lifelong financial support from the government, a figure that could grow substantially as new ailments are diagnosed and the VA processes a large claims backlog.
Further, anyone who knows anything about cognitive dissonance sees other huge problems with these results. Those who volunteer for even worthless endeavors will be inclined to say that those endeavors are worthwhile. Service in a fake war for “freedom” for which one has volunteered to sign up, leavse one’s family and is personally endangered falls into the “Effort justification paradigm”:
Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal. Aronson & Mills had individuals undergo a severe or mild “initiation” in order to become a member of a group. In the severe-initiation condition, the individuals engaged in an embarrassing activity. The group they joined turned out to be very dull and boring. The individuals in the severe-initiation condition evaluated the group as more interesting than the individuals in the mild-initiation condition.
Those veterans taking the survey would also be subject to the confirmation bias, which is a form of cognitive dissonance:
Reaffirm already held beliefs: Congeniality bias (also referred to as Confirmation Bias) refers to how people read or access information that affirms their already established opinions, rather than referencing material that contradicts them. For example, a person who is politically conservative might only read newspapers and watch news commentary that is from conservative news sources. This bias appears to be particularly apparent when faced with deeply held beliefs, i.e., when a person has ‘high commitment’ to their attitudes.
In short, when asked whether the war was worthwhile, many soldiers will seek to find reasons it was worthwhile. Who wants to admit that they spent a huge part of their lives in a war that was a mistake? In light of all these reasons why veterans would be inclined to find that these wars were worthwhile even while they weren’t, almost half of them maintained that they were not worthwhile.
There is an even bigger problem with this survey. It is a form of sleight of hand. What the soldiers think about their service has no relation to whether their service furthered any stated national goal. Politicians were told that the soldiers were going to war to “protect America,” and to “protect our freedom.” Numerous other objectives were stated by American politicians. That was after we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which it didn’t. For the war in Afghanistan, we were told that we needed to destroy the base of Al Qaeda. Where is any evidence that any of these many objectives have been achieved? In the case of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda merely shifted to other countries, to the extent that Al Qaeda is a meaningful entity at all.
I would challenge the news media to develop a meaningful metric regarding the reasons that were stated for these wars at the beginning of each of these wars. Once we gather this evidence, we should provide it to our veterans and only then let them weigh in. My suspicion is that we didn’t accomplish any of the stated goals for either of these wars. Tell this information to the veterans first, and then ask them whether the wars were worthwhile. Warn them that this question is a MUCH different question than any of the following:
1. Did it make you feel good to wear a soldier’s uniform?
2. Did you want to believe that the war you fought in was worthwhile?
3. Did you develop a sense of camaraderie with your fellow soldiers during the war?
4. Did you have some dangerous/exciting experiences during the war?
5. Would you prefer to believe, aside from any evidence that these wars were worthwhile?