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Expert: Military went to war; country didn't

David R. Segal, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, shares his thoughts on how the Iraq war differs from previous U.S. military conflicts.
David R. Segal
David R. SegalCenter for Research on Military Organization
/ Source: NBC News

Question: It seems that even though we’re at war, most of us go about our daily lives as if it is not happening. Is the “disconnect” between military families and the general population as extreme as it appears?

Answer: Yes. The big difference is the American military has gone to war and the country has not. In past wars everyone was asked to sacrifice, whether it was through taxes, bonds, rationing — even bringing in peach pits and rendering fat — and most importantly, sacrificing sons through conscription. Now, the sacrifice has been placed solely on military families.

Q: How has this affected the public perception of the war?   

A: If you think back to Vietnam, there was a tendency to be against the military. But that is no longer happening. In a way, the public is more sophisticated now. The public knows the Army does not decide what wars to fight. Americans have not abandoned their people in uniform.

Q: In your research, have you found that men and women in uniform feel they have support, or do they feel like they are on their own? 

A: They feel alone to some degree. … I’m afraid they feel victimized by the American government. The feeling is well placed. The government has abandoned our veterans.

Q: How so?

A: The men and women in uniform swear to support the Constitution and they take an oath to do what the government sends them to do without making judgments of rightness or wrongness. What is first and foremost on the military’s mind is keeping alive.

However, the men and women in uniform feel their contract with the government should require that they get what they need to prosecute the war it sends them to fight and help them when they come home.

When soldiers got to Iraq, many felt they weren’t given what they needed and asked their own families to do what they could. There wasn’t enough body armor. Soldiers were writing home to their wives and asking for flak jackets. Families shouldn’t have to do that.

Take all the IED attacks on Humvees that were not built to withstand this. IEDs are not new.  The Vietcong used IEDs in Vietnam; they have been around for decades. They are made from unexploded ordnance. We should have anticipated that (they) would be used against us and we should have had vehicles that were equipped for them. 

Q: It seems the American public as a whole is pretty quiet about this war. Is that an accurate perception?

A: Yes, and quite frankly, an interesting aspect of this war is that there is not a huge anti-war movement among the general public. During Vietnam, for example, there were huge protests in college campuses. Now, there is no draft and college students are not at risk. ... The families that are risking the most are the families of servicemen. And the anti-war Web sites are now military families’ Web sites.

Reservists bear especially heavy burden
Q: What are some of the issues that our servicemen and women and their families are dealing with as the rest of us go on with our lives?   

A: First of all, there are differences among military families. This is primarily a ground war, so it mostly affects the Army and Marine Corps and their families, and less so the Navy and Air Force. The Marine Corps is a much “younger” service. So the bulk of the families affected by the war are Army families.

But there are huge differences between active and reserve forces. For active forces, there is a recognition that the soldiers are called to do what they are paid to do. This is what you sign up for.

But this is not the same sentiment among the National Guard and the Reserves. Many train for one weekend a month and two weeks a summer …  and now they are there in Iraq for a year or more. And their families qualify for the same entitlements as active soldiers, but they do not have the ease of access to receive help. For example, the Reserve families might not live near PXes or bases where they can get the supplies and the support they need, so the impact is much more severe.     

So the reservists’ families are suffering more. They are the ones suffering significant losses of income. Many reservists make more on civilian jobs than they do in the reserves. This is different from the soldiers on active duty, whose base pay is the same if they are here or abroad, and actually goes up in a hostile zone. Compare that to a family doctor or a lawyer or a guy who runs men’s clothing store who has been in Iraq for over a year and has no one to run the business while they are away. They are the ones bearing the brunt of the war. 

Q: Why do we do not hear more about protests coming from military families?

A: Frankly, their strategy is different. Unlike the college kids during the Vietnam War who wanted to mobilize the public, the military families want to mobilize the policymakers. They are going to their local congressman, for example, and demanding their loved ones get what they need.    

Q: Is it working? Are conditions improving for military personnel and their families?

A: I think the armed services are getting smarter in terms of what they need to be providing their men and women. They figured out, for example, that the Humvees without armor are highly vulnerable to IEDs, so we have a new generation of military vehicles being built and sent. But you don’t produce thousands of these overnight. The Army might have written the contract, but soldiers might not get what they need for over a year.

And at Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), they are trying to listen to the wounded veterans and their families and give them more of the support and services they need.  But this is hard.  There is a sense, for example, that patients at Walter Reed have stopped thinking of themselves as soldiers. A few weeks ago, morale was going down. One Army solution was to have everyone who was able appear in uniform at a formation. That might have been good for the Army, but for the wounded soldiers, that was a pain in the ass. Lately the Army has been trying to emphasize the “warrior” role, the warrior citizen, rather than the citizen-soldier.

Q: Don’t you think this is a good idea?

A: Many senior military personnel do not like the word “warrior.” Warrior does not imply discipline. There is something sort of primitive about the word. It has always been honorable to be a soldierand to put others before self, regardless of whether it is a military mission or not.   

Q: Are there any lessons the American public has learned from this war?    

A: I kind of suspect it will be a long time before anyone says preemptive war again.