Veterans, Civilians Don't See Eye To Eye On War

Oct 7, 2011
Originally published on October 8, 2011 1:47 pm

Veterans and the general public have different views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the value of military service and even the subject of patriotism, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

The United States has never seen a moment like this one, with sustained combat for a decade, and a small fraction of American men and women in uniform, the Pew Center says.

"At any given time in the past decade, only about one half of 1 percent of the public has been on active duty in the military," says Paul Taylor, who edited the Pew study. He contrasts that number to another generation. "At the height of World War II, nearly 9 percent were on active duty."

'Patriotism Light'

Pew interviewed 4,000 veterans and civilians and found that the civilians largely agree that soldiers and their families are bearing much of the sacrifice of the two wars. So Taylor says Pew asked whether it's fair that the military is making the sacrifices when the public is not — or whether it's just part of being in the military.

"The public says, 'You know what? It's just part of being in the military,'" Taylor says.

He says that answer gets at the title of the study: The Military-Civilian Gap. That gap even extends to whether you'll recommend that a young person serve in uniform. Eight in 10 veterans say they would suggest a military career; just half of the civilians would.

Mac Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and a Marine platoon leader during the Vietnam War, says that amounts to what's been called "patriotism light" – the idea, he says, "that it's real easy for folks to praise the troops and thank them for their service, but turn around and say, 'But my kid's not going in the military.'"

Those ritual forms of patriotism — bumper stickers and yellow ribbons and greeting troops at airports — don't require sacrifice. Contrast that with World War II when all civilians sacrificed, at least through rationing. What's different today is the only civilians affected are the spouses and family members of those who serve. And more and more, the military is becoming something of a family business, says Owens and other experts. Many officers say fathers or uncles have served before them.

A Sacrifice Others Aren't Making

But putting on that uniform and serving during the past decade has taken its toll.

More than one-third of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say they've suffered from post-traumatic stress, whether or not they were diagnosed. That's why, the study says, nearly half of those coming home from those wars say it's been hard adjusting to civilian life.

"There's a very heavy psychological and emotional component here," Taylor says. "They've had strains in their family life, frequent outbursts of irritability."

Among those veterans polled, grueling and repeated deployments reflect a love of country. Two-thirds see themselves as more patriotic than other Americans. That doesn't surprise Owens.

"The military guy is saying, 'Well, I put on the uniform and I subject myself and my family to all these sorts of things, so yeah, I guess I am,'" he says.

The vast majority of those civilians polled acknowledge that the troops are bearing a large burden. As for sacrifice by the rest of the nation? Fewer than half think the American people have had to do much.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. We're now officially into the 11th year of the war in Afghanistan. To mark this moment, we're going to reflect a bit on sacrifice and service to the country. In a few minutes, we'll hear the story of one man who joined the military after 9/11 because he felt compelled to serve. But first, who should bear the burdens and sacrifices of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

The Pew Research Center interviewed 4,000 veterans and civilians and their study found what the center calls a military-civilian gap. Veterans and the general public don't see eye to eye. They have different views on the value of military service, even on patriotism. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has our report.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Pew Center says the United States has never seen a moment like this one. Sustained combat for a decade, and a small fraction of American men and women in uniform.

PAUL TAYLOR: At any given time in the past decade, only about one-half of 1 percent of the public has been on active duty in the military.

BOWMAN: That's Paul Taylor, who supervised the Pew study and contrasts that number to another generation.

TAYLOR: At the height of World War II, nearly 9 percent were on active duty.

BOWMAN: The Pew study found that civilians polled largely agree that soldiers and their families are bearing much of the sacrifice of the two wars. So Pew asked this question:

TAYLOR: Is it fair that the military is making the sacrifices when the public is not, or whether it's just part of being in the military? And the public says, you know what? It's just part of being in the military.

BOWMAN: And Taylor says that answer gets at the title of the study: the military-civilian gap. That gap even extends to whether you'll recommend that a young person serve in uniform. Eight in 10 veterans say they would suggest a military career. Just half of the civilians would. Mac Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and a Marine platoon leader during the Vietnam War, says that amounts to what's been called patriotism light.

PROFESSOR MAC OWENS: And the idea that if, you know, it's real easy for folks to praise the troops, thank them for their service and so forth, but then turn around and say, you know, my kid's not going in the military.

BOWMAN: Those ritual forms of patriotism, bumper stickers and yellow ribbons and greeting troops at airports don't require sacrifice. Contrast that with World War II when all civilians sacrificed, at least through rationing. What's different today is the only civilians affected are the spouses and family members of those who serve. And more and more, the military is becoming something of a family business, says Owens and other experts. Many officers say fathers or uncles have served before them.

But putting on that uniform and serving during the past decade has taken its toll. Again, the Pew Center's Paul Taylor:

TAYLOR: There's a very heavy psychological and emotional component here where nearly half say, who've come back from fighting these wars, that they've had trouble, that they've had strains in their family life, they've had frequent outbursts of irritability.

BOWMAN: More than one-third of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say they've suffered from post-traumatic stress, whether or not they were diagnosed. That's why, the study says, nearly half of those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan say it's been hard adjusting to civilian life. Among those veterans polled, their grueling and repeated deployments reflect a love of country. Two-thirds see themselves as more patriotic than other Americans. That doesn't surprise Mac Owens of the Naval War College.

OWENS: The military guy is saying, well, you know, I put on the uniform and I subject myself and my family to all these sorts of things, so yeah, I guess I am.

BOWMAN: More patriotic, that is. The vast majority of civilians polled acknowledge that the troops are bearing a large burden. As for sacrifice by the rest of the nation? Fewer than half think the American people have had to do much. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.