Cameron Treeby sits at the very fringe of the millennial generation. Born in 1981, he was deployed to Iraq nearly five years after the invasion of U.S. troops. From 2008 to 2009, Treeby fought in one of the largest military conflicts in recent history, a conflict that he describes as a pursuit to weaken the so-called “Axis of Evil,” a phrase coined by President George W. Bush.
“After 9/11, the nation wanted a villain, a singular villain, and the ‘Axis of Evil’ was that villain,” Treeby says.
The Iraq War was a long and costly conflict. From 2003 to 2011, when U.S. troops finally pulled out, the U.S. had spent nearly $800 billion and lost more than 4,800 soldiers, according to 2013 PBS and CNN reports.
Drawing Parallels: From Vietnam to Iraq
The Iraq War had significant support from the American people, with 18- to 29-year-olds as the most supportive generation in the country, according to a February 2006 Pew Research Center survey. Looking back to the Vietnam War era, this finding should not be surprising. The survey showed that in the beginning of the Vietnam War, younger people were the most likely to support military action, but as the war dragged on, that sentiment changed. Today, in a post-Iraq War era, the trend appears to be the same.
Treeby witnessed the shift in support first-hand. “In the beginning, everyone was eager to do their duty. It was all patriotism,” Treeby says. “Later on, as guys kept on getting over-deployed, it started to tear families apart.”
The same 2006 survey revealed the familiar trends of popular support throughout war. The survey revealed that in 2002, the year before the invasion, 69 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 favored military action in Iraq. By January 2006, that number dropped to 48 percent.
Likewise, a 2007 Pew survey revealed that nearly 74 percent of Democrats thought military action was a mistake, while Republicans remained relatively unmoved at 21 percent.
A very similar trend can be seen during the Vietnam War era. According to the 2006 Pew survey, in 1965, Americans under the age of 30 responded positively to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policy on Vietnam. Almost 56 percent of young adults under 30 approved of Johnson’s approach to invade, while just 41 percent of Americans ages 50 and older approved of his tactics. By 1973, similar to the Iraq War study, 65 percent of Democrats thought sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake, and 54 percent of Republicans shared the same view, according to the 2007 Pew survey.
While the majority of Americans saw going to war as a mistake, both in Vietnam and Iraq, there are some millennials who stand by the decision. Ilan Sinelnikov, a junior studying business and marketing at the University of Minnesota and president of the group Students Supporting Israel, is one of them. “The reason why we went into Afghanistan was good. You have to find the people responsible for 9/11,” he says. But for Sinelnikov, Iraq was a different story. “It’s difficult. We should have thought about the end goal, but I think it was the right decision.”
Effects of War-Fatigue at Home
Two years removed from the Iraq War with troops still deployed in Afghanistan, Americans are sick of war. The United States’ presence in Afghanistan has been declining, but the region is far from stable.
Going forward, the question that millennials and all Americans will have to face is whether it is the responsibility of the U.S. to resolve the complicated and bloody conflicts in the region.
New York Times author and American historian Sam Tanenhaus poses the question in a September New York Times video story on American Isolationism: “Are we an isolationist country that doesn’t want to get involved in other nations’ problems, or are we a global leader who must try to solve them?” In recent years, most Americans have favored the former.
Battles throughout the Middle East claim more lives every day. Violence continues in Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, to name a few.
Despite the continued bloodshed, recent Pew surveys show that Americans remain hesitant to get involved in another war, such as the civil war in Syria. That conflict has claimed at least 93,000 lives, according to a United Nations report released in July 2013.
Americans not only want to stay out of conflicts in the future, but they also want troops to come home. A 2011 Pew survey reported that almost 56 percent of Americans favored removing troops from Afghanistan. It was the first time a majority supported pulling out of the war-torn country.
After witnessing the violence and chaos in the region firsthand, Treeby shares a similar view, and he relates it to the current problems in Syria. “Afghanistan is unwinnable,” Treeby says. “We have made progress, but at what cost? Syria is a very similar situation. You need to let it figure itself out; you have to let them evolve.”
Like Treeby, Sinelnikov agrees that American intervention in the Syrian civil war would be an ill-advised undertaking. “Syria is a super complicated issue,” Sinelnikov says. “There are a lot of minorities. The ruling government is a minority—the Alawites. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot lose. If he loses, the Alawites will be slaughtered. He will fight to the end, but the Sunnis don’t want him in power, and they will fight to the end, too.”
In the wake of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, there has been a push by the Obama Administration to intervene using surgical airstrikes. The tactic has received little support in the U.S., as shown by a Pew survey published in September.
What Should the Role of the U.S. be?
In his book, The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam, Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr. reflects on the lessons that came out of the war in Vietnam. As Palmer explains, one of the most important lessons that we can draw from Vietnam is that a war cannot be successful without the will of the people. “It seems rather obvious that a nation cannot fight a war in cold blood, sending its men and women to distant fields of battle without arousing the emotions of the people,” Palmer wrote.
The majority of Americans may oppose intervention in Syria through the use of air strikes, but there are millennials who believe the U.S. can still try to make a positive impact in other ways.
Yazan Alkhatib, 20, is pursuing a major in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota. Alkhatib attended a seminar titled “Bleeding Syria” at the university, where Syrian physician M. Anas Moughrabieh spoke about the crisis in the country.
Alkhatib admits that he does not fully understand the situation in Syria, but he says the U.S. can still do something from a humanitarian approach. “The United States needs to help in some way,” Alkhatib says. “If we can save lives, we should save lives.”