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Gap Grows Between Military, Civilians On War

As the U.S. marks the 10th anniversary of its involvement in the Afghan war this week, a Pew Research Center report shows some wide differences between the way military members and the general public view the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pew researchers talked to nearly 4,000 people, split almost evenly between military veterans and civilians. Paul Taylor, the editor of the study, said he wanted to explore this unique moment in American history.

"We've never had sustained combat for a full decade, and we've never fought a war in which such a small share of the population has carried the fight," he says.

Just one-half of 1 percent of the American population has served on active duty during the last decade. That compares to the 9 percent who wore the uniform during World War II.

Overall, Americans still hold the military in the highest regard. It towers above organized religion, big business and Congress.

But signing up for the military is another matter. More than 80 percent of veterans would recommend a military career to a young person close to them. Among civilians, that number drops to about half that.

Attitude Toward Military Service

Civilians are much more ambivalent toward military service.

"They recognize that here are burdens borne and frankly they don't necessarily want their kith and kin and folks close to them to bear those burdens," Taylor says.

"There is a gap. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is in effect, frankly, above my pay grade. It's an interesting question," he says .

When veterans were asked that question, eight in 10 say the American public doesn't understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families.

The civilians polled acknowledge that soldiers and their families make a lot of sacrifices. But only one-quarter see that as unfair. A large majority of civilians see it as "just being part of the military."

Another sign of disconnect is that the public isn't paying much attention to Afghanistan or Iraq. About 25 percent say they are following the wars closely; that figure has dropped in half from a few years ago.

That comes as no surprise to some service members, such as Marine Sgt. Jon Moulder. He was patrolling in Afghanistan in June when he spoke with NPR about the lack of interest back home in his mission.

"We're starting to fall to the wayside. This has been going on for so long. It's America's longest conflict running to date. Kind of like the bastard children of our generation," he said.

Moulder is part of a small fraction of Americans who serve, and that troubles Martin Cook, a civilian professor of military ethics at the Naval War College.

"It becomes much more easy to deploy U.S. forces in tough environments for long periods of time because the vast majority of Americans don't feel they have any skin in the game. I've often speculated could we have fought wars for 10 years if this was a draftee army and I doubt it," he says.

Attitudes Toward Afghanistan, Iraq

The strategy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is also a cause for disagreement between the civilians and veterans polled.

Both groups differ on the question of nation-building, which entails everything from constructing schools in Iraq and Afghanistan to training and equipping their militaries. Fifty-nine percent of veterans support this, compared to just 45 percent of the civilians polled.

The Pew Center's Taylor says civilians likely focus on the billions of dollars spent to rebuild places like Afghanistan. Troops focus less on the money and more on the results.

"The troops who are actually over there see the value of the military strategy, that one goes hand in hand with the other," he says.

And the troops likely see nation-building as a faster way home from war, a war that even veterans are growing tired of, according to the Pew study.

"It is notable that the warriors after 10 years of battle are ambivalent at best about the whole enterprise they've been engaged in," he says.

About one-third of veterans say neither war was worth fighting. Nearly half of civilians say that.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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