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Iraq and Afghanistan: Not worth the cost, many US veterans say

Like much of the rest of the country, a substantial number of American veterans of war in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t think the 10-year effort has been worth the cost.

While those who entered military service after 9/11 generally have a more positive attitude toward the US role in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pew Research Center reported Wednesday, “only one-third (34%) of these recent veterans say that both wars have been worth fighting.” The report also says, “Nearly as many (33%) say neither conflict has been worth the costs.”

When the wars are considered individually, 50 percent said the Afghanistan war was worth fighting and 44 percent said the Iraq war was worth it. But 51 percent of post-9/11 veterans said "overreliance on military force creates hatred that breeds terrorism," while just 4 in 10 said "overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism."

As with past wars, the trauma of combat can lead to lingering and deeply personal questions about the war itself.

More than 6,000 US service members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most veterans of those wars have served with or known somebody killed in combat. Many thousands more have been affected by these wars' distinct injuries, mainly due to roadside bombs – lost limbs, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress. With modern medical treatment facilities close to the battlefield, the ratio of those who survive despite serious wounds compared with fatal casualties is higher than in previous wars.

Of the war vets surveyed, more than 90 percent said they were proud of their service, became more mature, and gained self-confidence.

But the ripple effects of combat on families have been substantial. Forty-eight percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets report strains in family relationships, 47 percent frequently feel irritable or angry, and 37 percent said they’ve experienced post-traumatic stress.

While their return home was far more warmly received than Vietnam veterans', the Pew poll also finds that “84% of these modern-era veterans say that the American public has little or no understanding of the problems that those in the military face.”

Still, the public on the whole has been able to separate the warrior from the war. More than 90 percent of the general US population expresses pride in the troops, and three-quarters say they have thanked someone in the military for their service.

But while public confidence in the military is at or near its highest level in decades, Pew finds, a 45 percent plurality of Americans generally say neither the Iraq nor Afghanistan wars has been worth the cost – higher than the 33 percent for vets.

“The veterans have borne the burdens of war but come back with emotional and psychological challenges to a country that does not understand them,” Paul Taylor, one of the Pew report’s authors, told CNN – a comment that resonates with many Vietnam vets.

Friday marks 10 years anniversary since US combat began in Afghanistan, the longest period of sustained combat in American history.

On one important thing, civilians and returning service members agree: Most (about 60 percent) have “isolationist inclinations,” according to Pew surveys, “saying the United States should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.”

“The US and other international actors cannot import foreign solutions for what, in the end, are Afghan problems with only Afghan solutions,” Iraq war Army vet Matt Southworth wrote on his blog this week. “The military strategy of the last decade, and particularly the last two years, has made Afghanistan less safe and the region less stable.”

Mr. Southworth now works for the Friends Committee on National Legislation (the Quaker lobby) and traveled to Afghanistan on a recent fact-finding mission. “There is a need for a responsible withdrawal that recognizes an obligation to support Afghan processes going forward,” he writes.

The Pew report is based on two surveys conducted over the summer. One polled 1,853 veterans, including 712 who had served in the military after 9/11 (336 of whom had served in Iraq or Afghanistan). The second survey polled 2,003 adults who had not served in the military.