Read this fantastic essay over at Best Defense.
I meet a lot of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan through my work, as students, guest speakers, and through the various other interactions that allow a foreign policy MA program to function. I can’t remember ever thanking a veteran for his or her service. There may have been some instance that I don’t now recollect where it seemed appropriate, but it’s certainly not my normal behavior. I also can’t ever remember trying to shake the hand of a veteran, unless such behavior was otherwise appropriate. This isn’t because I don’t have respect for the contribution of veterans (I feel that the profession of soldier is legitimate, however I may feel about a particular war), but rather because it seems… cloying.
The vets I’ve met are as diverse in outlook and experience as you would imagine. They lean somewhat right, but not necessarily in predictable ways. I’ve met very few vets who adopt the left anti-imperialist critique of American foreign policy, although I’ve known some who are pretty happy with Andrew Bacevich’s formulation of much the same argument. At least a large minority believed that the war in Iraq was a mistake, but I’ve heard far fewer critiques of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan. Most have thought DADT pointless. Even among those vets who believed Iraq was a mistake, I can’t remember talking to anyone who believed that it was wrong or unjust that they personally had been sent there; the critiques of the Iraq War that concentrate on the experiences of American soldiers (stop loss, poor people being sent to fight a rich man’s war, etc.) do not resonate with my experience of veterans. I have also known very smart, capable veterans who served in Iraq and believe that it was the right thing to do, as well as some who joined for the opportunity to fight.
The essay at Best Defense was interesting to me because I don’t think that progressives quite get the veteran thing right. The refrain “if you support the troops, don’t send them to war” isn’t quite right; none of the vets I’ve known has resented being sent to war. Many of them, especially the most recent, signed up when they knew that a war was already on, and most of those (in my experience) didn’t sign up because of economic factors, etc. That said, we don’t quite get the veteran thing wrong, either. The growing number of veterans who have turned to progressive politics (and this percentage is much higher than in the 1990s) suggests that conservatives probably get the veteran thing even less right. I think that the linked essay gives some sense of why that’s the case; conservatives start with a set of assumptions about veterans that do violence to the diversity of actual veteran experience. I should also say that I’m not convinced by the case for conscription, or the more general argument that a volunteer military inherently means that the burdens of war are shared unfairly. I’m also not convinced that the United States has anything approaching a serious civil-military relations crisis, or that the percentage of veterans serving in Congress represents any particular problem.