They were both soldiers: One had received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star and the other a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Service Cross (later upgraded to the Medal of Honor). Both were grievously wounded in Italy within a week of each other in April 1945; both recuperated at Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, where they played bridge and became lifelong friends. And both became politicians, committed to the good of the country. They were Senators Daniel Inouye and Bob Dole, and they have a great deal to teach us.
Every Veterans Day, memorials, speeches, and parades honor the service of patriots such as Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye. Many past, present, and future members of the U.S. military participate in these events, and some may ask themselves, “Was it worth it?” This question is always germane, but it is particularly relevant today, because the United States has ended the longest war in its history. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of the Afghan government, many who served there and in Iraq have asked themselves whether it was worth it.
Different Wars, Different Answers
To veterans, the question focuses on the past: Were their time, efforts, and sacrifices worth it? The answer, of course, is contextual; it depends on the historical period, circumstances, and outcomes.
For those of what Tom Brokaw labeled the greatest generation—the veterans of World War II—there was little doubt that their efforts to defeat those who perpetrated the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, who ordered the building and operation of the genocidal concentration camps, and who supported the Axis alliance were just, necessary, and worth it. I doubt Daniel Inouye, Bob Dole, or many other veterans of World War II ever questioned their service and sacrifices.
My father was a member of that greatest generation, and I often would invite him to my college classes to talk about serving on a 173-foot patrol craft in a big war in a faraway place. He would tell them what it was like to be captain of a ship and bring her back from the South Pacific at the end of the war when he was a 23-year-old commanding officer. And he would always end by saying, “Serving our country was one of the greatest honors of my life.”
The wars that followed World War II, however, were limited and controversial. So the answer to the question—Was it worth it?—may be different for veterans who served in different places, eras, and conflicts.
North Korea staged an unambiguous, aggressive invasion of South Korea in June 1950. The U.N. Security Council voted to support South Korea, and 37,000 Americans gave “their last full measure of devotion” in that war.
The United States then became involved in what was essentially a civil war in Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans. In the end, helicopters hurriedly evacuated Americans and their allies. Some veterans would say the war was a waste of American lives, resources, and even values. And they deserve to have their views respected: They “gave at the office,” in the rice paddies, jungles, and rivers of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked and occupied Kuwait. Similar to Korea, the invasion was unambiguous and aggressive, and the U.N. Security Council voted to support efforts to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In only 100 hours of combat operations, the United States and its coalition partners defeated Saddam’s military and restored the Kuwaiti government to power.
On 11 September 2001, the clear blue skies of Manhattan were replaced with the smoke, destruction, and chaos created by the crash of two airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The Pentagon also was attacked, and the courageous passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 rallied against the hijackers of their plane and brought it down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. One month later, President George W. Bush deployed U.S. special forces and CIA operators into Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda’s terrorist training camps and overthrow the Taliban government.
Concurrent to the war in Afghanistan, the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 on the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had cooperated with al Qaeda. Neither proved to be true, but thousands of American troops were deployed to Iraq.1
Many of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq served multiple tours; both they and their families paid disproportionately for these wars.
There are many ways to measure worth. Economists measure it by an object or endeavor’s monetary value. People may volunteer for the military to try and improve their lot in life, but few, if any, join to make money; there are easier and far less risky ways to do that.
Psychologists measure worth by how an undertaking affects one’s view of one’s self. As any drill instructor will tell you, the purpose of boot camp is to strip a recruit’s identity and then build it back on the cultural foundation of military service. Those who make it through generally have a higher belief in themselves and their value.
Social scientists measure worth by how an activity affects society and the polity. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, members of the military and intelligence services, and healthcare workers volunteer to risk, and if necessary give, their lives for their fellow citizens. Surely, that is the definition of worth.
In an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said, “Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”
A former Army Ranger who served three deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and later as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy, Andrew Exum wrote, “If we were to collectively abandon service, it would mean abandoning the idea of America. Our country has never been more, or less, than a democratic experiment. . . . But for that experiment to continue, the country needs citizens willing to commit to it.”2 Yet, only 7 percent of the U.S. population has served in the military, and less than 1 percent currently serves on active duty.
More than 7,000 U.S. service members died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and thousands more were wounded physically and psychologically. Brown University’s Cost of War Project estimates that 30,177 Afghanistan/Iraq veterans have taken their own lives.3 In addition, the Veterans Administration estimates that up to 20 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and more than 17 percent have traumatic brain injuries.4
These are the physical and mental costs of these recent wars. Were they worth it? Only those who paid these costs can answer that question.
To Honor and Defend
Many veterans’ favorite movie is Saving Private Ryan. It is the fictional story of an Army squad commanded by Captain John H. Miller that attempts to locate the last surviving brother of three men killed in combat to send him home. The squad learns that Private James Francis Ryan’s unit is in the fictional town of Ramelle.
Arriving in Ramelle, Captain Miller informs Ryan of the death of his brothers and tells him that the squad, which has lost several members to hostile fire while tracking Ryan down, is there to take him home. Ryan’s unit is under imminent threat from attacking German forces, and he refuses to leave his comrades. Captain Miller and the remaining members of his squad decide to stay with Ryan’s unit, which is outnumbered and outgunned by the attacking forces. In the ensuing conflict, Captain Miller is grievously wounded, and as he lays dying, he looks at Ryan and says, “Earn this.”
Neither my father nor to my knowledge Bob Dole, Daniel Inouye, or other members of that greatest generation ever asked those who followed to earn what they had given. In my case, they didn’t need to, because I wanted to earn it, both for them and for those with whom I served.
I suspect this is the case for many, if not most, veterans. They served to earn the respect of those who came before them and those who served beside them. Few, if any, volunteered for the military to create a “stable international system” or “regional balance of power.” Rather, they served to defend their country and Constitution, to honor those who came before, and to protect the comrades in arms next to them. And that, in my view, is worth it.
When Daniel Inouye died in 2012, Bob Dole recalled, “I paid my respects as he lay in state in the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda. Both injuries and time had begun to get the best of me, so I spent much of my time seated. But I made sure to walk up to Danny’s casket. He dedicated and nearly gave his life to our nation. He deserved one more standing salute.” Six years later, when Dole’s Republican competitor and the Navy’s youngest pilot in World War II, George H. W. Bush, died and lay in the rotunda, Bob Dole came up to the casket in his wheelchair and, again, stood and saluted.
1. Dan Caldwell, Vortex of Conflict: U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).
2. Andrew Exum, “The Afghan War Took an Awful Toll. I Would Still Serve Again,” The New York Times, 10 September 2021.
3. Thomas Howard Suitt, High Suicide Rates among United States Service Members and Veterans of the Post-9/11 Wars, Costs of War Research Series (Boston: Brown University Watson Institute, 21 June 2021).
4. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD, “How Common Is PTSD in Veterans?” ptsd.va.gov; and Lisa K. Lindquist, Holly C. Love, and Eric B. Elbogen, “Traumatic Brain Injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans: New Results from a National Random Sample,” Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 29, no. 3 (Summer 2017): 254–59.