In wars of America's century just past, we have sent our soldiers to far-off fields of battle and were left to wonder about their opinions of the life-and-death conflicts in which they were involved.
Letters home, and more recently telephone calls and emails, would give us a peek into their states of mind. Some who returned would regale friends and family with tales from the front lines.
Times have now changed. A first-ever survey of U.S. troops on the ground fighting a war overseas has revealed surprising findings, not the least of which is that an overwhelming majority of 72% of American troops in Iraq think the U.S. should exit the country within the next year.
Further, a new Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey shows that more than one in four (29%) thought the U.S. should pull its troops immediately.
The poll, conducted in conjunction with Le Moyne College's Center for Peace and Global Studies, also showed that another 22% of the respondents, serving in various branches of the armed forces, said the U.S. should leave Iraq in the next six months. One in every five troops - 21% - said troops should be out between six and 12 months. Nearly a quarter - 23% - said they should stay "as long as they are needed."
The troops have drawn different conclusions about fellow citizens back home. Asked why they think some Americans favor rapid U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, 37% of troops serving there said those Americans are unpatriotic, while 20% believe people back home don't believe a continued occupation will work. Another 16% said they believe those favoring a quick withdrawal do so because they oppose the use of the military in a pre-emptive war, while 15% said they do not believe those Americans understand the need for the U.S. troops in Iraq.
At 55%, reservists serving in Iraq were most likely to see those back home as unpatriotic for wanting a rapid withdrawal, while 45% of Marines and 33% of members of the regular Army agreed.
The wide-ranging poll also shows that 58% of those serving in country say the U.S. mission in Iraq is clear in their minds, while 42% said it is either somewhat or very unclear to them, that they have no understanding of it at all, or are unsure. Nearly nine of every 10 - 85% - said the U.S. mission is "to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9-11 attacks," while 77% said they believe the main or a major reason for the war was "to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq."
Ninety-three percent said that removing weapons of mass destruction is not a reason for U.S. troops being there. Instead, that initial rationale went by the wayside and, in the minds of 68% of the troops, the real mission became to remove Saddam Hussein.
Just 24% said that "establishing a democracy that can be a model for the Arab World" was the main or a major reason for the war. Only small percentages see the mission there as securing oil supplies (11%) or to provide long-term bases for US troops in the region (6%).
More than 80% of the troops said they did not hold a negative view of Iraqis because of continuing insurgent attacks against them. Only about two in five see the insurgency as being comprised of discontented Sunnis with very few non-Iraqi helpers.
On this question there appears to be some confusion among the troops, but two in every three do not agree that if non-Iraqi terrorists could be prevented from crossing the border into Iraq, the insurgency would end.
To control the insurgency, a majority of respondents (53%) said the U.S. should double both the number of troops and bombing missions, an option absolutely no one back in Washington is considering.
Reservists were most enthusiastic about using bombing runs and a doubling of ground troops to counter the enemy, with 70% agreeing that would work to control the insurgency. Among regular Army respondents, 48% favored more troops and bombing, and 47% of Marines agreed. However, 36% of Marines said they were uncertain that strategy would work, compared to just 9% of regular Army, 6% of National Guard respondents, and 2% of reservists who said they were not sure.
Those in Iraq on their first tour of duty were less optimistic that more troops and bombing runs would work. While 38% of first-timers agreed, 62% of those on their second tour and 53% in Iraq at least three times favored more U.S. troops and firepower.
As new photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq surface, a majority of troops serving there said they oppose harsh interrogation methods. A majority - 55% - said it is not appropriate or standard military conduct to use harsh and threatening methods on possible insurgent prisoners to information of military value.
Among all respondents, 26% said they were on their first tour of duty in Iraq, while 45% said they were on their second tour, and 29% said they were in Iraq for a third time, or more. Three of every four were male respondents, with 63% under the age of 30.
The survey included 944 military respondents interviewed at several undisclosed locations throughout Iraq. The names of the specific locations and specific personnel who conducted the survey are being withheld for security purposes. Surveys were conducted face-to-face using random sampling techniques. The margin of error for the survey, conducted Jan. 18 through Feb. 14, 2006, is +/- 3.3 percentage points.
In other words, the poll is a sound, solid measurement of what is going through the minds of our front-line warriors. It's no letter home, but it's still good to hear from them.