As the tide of war rises again in the Middle East, the military's rank and file are mostly opposed to expanding the new mission in Iraq and Syria to include sending a large number of U.S. ground troops into combat, according to a Military Times survey of active-duty members.

On the surface, troops appear to support President Obama's repeated vows not to let the U.S. military get "dragged into another ground war" in Iraq. Yet at the same time, the views of many service members are shaped by a deep ambivalence about this commander in chief and questions about his ability to lead the nation through a major war, according to the survey and interviews.

The reader survey asked more than 2,200 active-duty troops this question: "In your opinion, do you think the U.S. military should send a substantial number of combat troops to Iraq to support the Iraqi security forces?" Slightly more than 70 percent responded: "No."

"It's their country, it's their business. I don't think major 'boots on the ground' is the right answer," said one Army infantry officer and prior-enlisted soldier who deployed to Iraq three times. He responded to the survey and an interview request but, like several other service members in this story, asked not to be named because he is not authorized to discuss high-level military policy.

The Military Times survey was conducted online this summer and concluded in August just as President Obama was ramping up the air campaign against the Islamic State group.

As the U.S. expands that air war into Syria and increases the number of U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq — topping more than 1,700 total — service members say their feelings about the crisis and the U.S. response to it have intensified.

In barracks and staff offices, on smoke breaks and over after-hours beers, troops' conversations about Iraq have shifted abruptly from reflections on the past to questions about the future that are fraught with concerns about the wisdom and scope of new missions. Troops are raising new questions about why the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, what went wrong and why.

Many simply wonder why anyone should think the long-term outcome will be any different this time.

"It's kind of futile in the end — regardless of how well we do our job, the Iraqi government isn't going to be able to hold up," Marine 2nd Lt. Christopher Fox said.


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And many share the views of one Navy hospital corpsman second class at Camp Pendleton, California, who said his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on him mentally, physically and personally.

"We're burned out," he said.

New pessimism

The dire headlines this summer about the near-collapse of the Iraqi army have fueled a new level of pessimism about the eight-year Iraq War that concluded almost three years ago.

Only 30 percent of active-duty troops surveyed say the Iraq War was "very successful" or "somewhat successful." That's down from about 64 percent who expressed positive views in a similarly worded question in 2011 as the war was winding down.

"It's a kick in the rear because [the Iraqi extremists] are making a comeback and everything I did was for naught. ... Those are some of the thoughts that go through my head," said Marine Sgt. Darrell Priestley, 39, a combat engineer who deployed to Iraq in 2009.


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Questions about the value of the eight-year mission in Iraq are reaching the highest levels of the military command.

Responding to a question about morale in a recent interview, Marine Gen. John Kelly said, "It's certainly an emotional moment for anyone who has ever been there. I'd say to Marines: 'We don't get a vote. We go where the nation sends us. Our job is to win — we won.' "

To some degree, military opinions track those of the broader civilian world, which also reflect an increasingly negative view of the war. Yet service members are unlikely to question the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 or the execution of the eight-year combat operation. Instead, they focus their pessimism on the stewardship of Iraq after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 — both by the Iraqi government as well as the Obama administration, which has essentially taken a hands-off approach to Iraq for nearly three years.

"If you piece all of those together, what you get is a military viewpoint something like the following: We left something like success behind, and since then events since then have wrecked that," said Peter Feaver, a professor and military expert at Duke University.

"The majority of the military would probably reject the interpretation that, 'Oh, this was a chimera in 2011, this was fake success.' I think they would say 'No, it was real, but it was undone.' "

At the center of those debates is the commander in chief, and renewed criticism of Obama for his decision to withdraw completely in 2011. Some military leaders wanted to keep a residual force of 10,000 to 20,000 troops.

At the time, that decision was driven by the Iraq parliament's refusal to approve a status of forces agreement granting legal protections to U.S. troops. Nevertheless, many service members believe the current crisis in Iraq may have been avoided if Obama was more aggressive about securing approval for a substantive residual U.S. force beyond 2011.

"I know there are other political issues, but for our job, we should have stayed until it was secure," said Army Capt. Eric Hatch, a logistics officer at Fort Bliss, Texas. "I think we were close to being done [in 2011], but I think we could have stayed another year or two. If you're going to commit troops to do a mission, you should stay until the mission is complete."

Go big or not at all

Opponents of an expanded mission fall into two camps. Some troops think the U.S. should simply stay out of the conflagration engulfing the Middle East. But others take a more nuanced view.

One Air Force lieutenant colonel said he supports taking the fight to the Islamic State militants, even if that involves a large number of U.S. combat troops. But he worries that the country's leadership will not completely see the mission through.

"If we do it halfheartedly, we shouldn't do it at all," he said, adding that America should expand its military mission in Iraq "only if we're committed to complete victory."

"I'm not hearing that now," he said. "There's political fear of blowback for making such a declaration. War, as ugly as it is, should be done in a very overwhelming and clear fashion."

Troops intuitively understand that final decisions ultimately land on Obama's desk. And support for Obama within the military — never especially high — has dropped significantly since he took office, according to the Military Times survey. In 2009, 35 percent of service members approved of the way Obama was "handling of his job as commander in chief." This year, that figure dropped below 15 percent.

That lack of support for Obama may underpin some service members' views on Iraq today, Feaver said.

"It's very hard to mobilize the military to follow an uncertain trumpet," he said in an interview after reviewing the results of the Military Times poll. "If they have doubts about the commander in chief, they are going to have doubts about a major military operation.

"It is possible that the military is making a judgment that while a different president might be committed to a major operation, this president is not — so there is no reason to do one," Feaver said.


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Active-duty members may be more opposed to sending troops back to Iraq compared with veterans of the Iraq War who have left the military, said Yinon Weiss, founder of Rally Point, an online military community where hundreds of members are involved in various discussions about the U.S. military action in Iraq and now Syria.

"Most veterans we see on [Rally Point] are very supportive of boots on the ground," said Weiss, a former Army Special Forces officer. "I would say with service members, it is much more mixed, in that many question whether the U.S. military has the endurance to potentially open up a new ground front."

"But [for] those who were in Iraq ... there's this kind of notion of, 'We don't want our previous gains and losses to be in vain.' "

That logic doesn't hold water for Fox, a junior officer and prior-enlisted Marine who deployed twice to Iraq.

"A lot of people have that 'sunken cost' mentality — 'Since we put so much into it, we can't pull out right now,' " he said. "That is not a good argument for anything."

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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