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These veterans want more than corporate perks and 'thank you for your service'

A majority of former servicemembers say they want out of Afghanistan and endless war. Is anyone in Washington listening?

Analysis | Global Crises

Like every Veterans Day, active and retired members of the U.S. armed forces will receive their annual gifts of a free breakfast at Denny’s, a free coffee at 7/11, and now, socially-distanced gratitude in place of handshakes. But what they want (and deserve) more than corporate perks and routine compliments, is an end to America’s endless wars.

Year after year, veterans register their dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. foreign policy, and like the rest of the similarly-minded American public, they are rebuffed and ignored. A poll conducted in November 2018 by Smithsonian magazine — in conjunction with Stars and Stripes and George Mason University — found that 84 percent of veterans believe the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on too long. Another poll conducted in May 2019 by Pew Research concluded that 58 percent of veterans believe the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, while a further 64 percent would say the same about Iraq. 

Washington, however, hasn’t delivered. Even Donald Trump, who for four years promised to withdraw the U.S. military from its exhaustive overreach overseas, has failed to end a single war (and in several theaters, escalated them). 

This obvious inaction from the political class has led, in just the last year, to a greater number of veterans willing to become more active in political debates. They say they are tired of seeing their brothers and sisters-in-arms being sent overseas to patrol the same desert and mountainous locales of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and then return, sometimes with broken bodies and trauma, only to be redeployed again, and again.

The most prominent example of this frustration came from former Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Five veterans — ranging in rank from admiral to lieutenant — entered the 2020 Democratic primaries, but only U.S. Army Major Gabbard’s platform aligned with the supermajority of veterans who want to end America’s involvement in Middle East quagmires. 

Pursuing a “country first” agenda on foreign policy throughout the campaign, Gabbard also pushed to have her “no more regime change wars” rhetoric included in the greater primary conversation. Her insistence led to her exclusion from debate stages, while former party nominee and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused her of being groomed by the Russian government. When Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was asked then about this baseless accusation against an active member of the military, she laughed and responded, “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” In contrast, President-elect Joe Biden did defend Gabbard against the smear. 

While Tulsi Gabbard provided a lodestar for veterans and non-interventionists of all types, her influence in the Democratic Party never registered above negligible. But what about anti-war proponents on the right?

The aforementioned Pew Research poll shows a gap of 20-30 points between Republican-leaning veterans and Democratic-leaning veterans in how they feel about withdrawal. Many on the right invariably hold onto their hawkish inclinations from previous administrations. But as James Antle observed Monday on this website, “For all of the faults of his foreign policy in the end, Trump got Republicans talking about ending endless wars and extricating the U.S. from the Middle East.”

A new group of veterans seek to bring both that message and our soldiers’ home. Founded in 2019, Bring Our Troops Home is a right-of-center veterans’ organization whose dual mission is a military withdrawal from the Middle East, and the enforcement of constitutional provisions on war powers at home. Based in Idaho, it proudly holds up its foreign policy as continuing the conservative legacy of William Borah, Robert Taft, and other members of the “Old Right.”

One year ago they held their first conference in Washington D.C., where over a hundred conservative veterans-turned-activists heard speakers and lobbied their representatives to restore a foreign policy befitting a limited-government republic.

And last month, on the 19th anniversary of U.S. troops hitting the ground in Afghanistan, Bring Our Troops Home held an event in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to deplore the continuation of the forever war in Central Asia. The location was selected in honor of Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a West Chester native who after more than 30 years of warfighting became a popular peace activist. His 1935 book “War is a Racket”— an early critique of the not-yet-named military-industrial complex — maintains its notoriety.

In attendance in West Chester was Scott Spaulding, a Marine who served two tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to see a lot of things change,” he said regarding U.S. foreign policy. “Most immediately, I think we certainly need to draw down tension with the major powers that have been escalated by both parties over the last few years. But then also the wars need to be drawn to a close that we’re actively involved in.”

Instead of “thank you for your service” and other niceties, this Veterans Day civilians left and right should start listening to men and women like Spaulding and Gabbard who represent the growing majority of people who’ve worn the uniform and are looking for change in our U.S. foreign policy. We can’t let our veterans continue to fight alone. 

A veteran marches in the Twin Cities Heroes Parade on July 28, 2012, in Minneapolis. The parade honors post-9/11 veterans and active military. (Miker/Shutterstock)
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