COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Mack McDowell likes to spend time at the local knife and gun show "drooling over firearms," as he puts it. Retired after 30 years in the U.S. Army, he has lined his study with books on war, framed battalion patches from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, a John Wayne poster, and an 1861 Springfield rifle from an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.
But when it comes to the 2012 presidential election, Master Sergeant McDowell is no hawk.
In South Carolina's January primary, the one-time Reagan supporter voted for Ron Paul "because of his unchanging stand against overseas involvement." In November, McDowell plans to vote for the candidate least likely to wage "knee-jerk reaction wars."
Disaffection with the politics of shock and awe runs deep among men and women who have served in the military during the past decade of conflict. Only 32 percent think the war in Iraq ended successfully, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. And far more of them would pull out of Afghanistan than continue military operations there.
While the 2012 campaign today is dominated by economic and domestic issues, military concerns could easily jump to the fore. Nearly 90,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Israeli politicians and their U.S. supporters debate over whether to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities as partisans bicker over proposed Pentagon budget cuts.
Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of "a dangerous course" in wanting to cut $1 trillion from the defense budget - although the administration's actual proposal is a reduction of $487 billion over the next decade.
"We should not negotiate with the Taliban," the former Massachusetts governor contends. "We should defeat the Taliban." He has blamed Obama for "procrastination toward Iran" and advocates arming Syrian rebels.
Romney, along with his primary rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, had also accused Obama of "appeasement" toward U.S. enemies - a charge that drew a sharp Obama rebuttal. "Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who've been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement," the president shot back. He has reproached GOP candidates: "Now is not the time for bluster."
If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population.
The GOP's heated rhetoric, aimed at the party's traditional hawks, might be expected to resonate with veterans. Yet in interviews in South Carolina, a military-friendly red state, many former soldiers expressed anger at the toll of a decade of war, questioned the legitimacy of George W. Bush's Iraq invasion, and worried that the surge in Afghanistan won't make a difference in the long run.
"We looked real cool going into Iraq waving our guns," said McDowell, 50, who retired from the 82d Airborne Division in November with a Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars. "But people lost their lives, and it made no sense."
Now he worries. "I really don't like the direction we are going, how we seem to come closer daily towards a war with Iran."
In Columbia, where McDowell lives in a leafy subdivision, the streets are named for American Revolutionary war heroes, and the Confederate battle flag still flies on the capitol grounds. Pizza parlors offer a 10 percent discount to uniformed soldiers from nearby Fort Jackson, one of eight military bases that pump $13 billion a year into the state's economy.
In exit polls, a quarter of voters in January's primary identified themselves as veterans.
Among them were Karen and Kelly Grafton, devout Southern Baptists who live in the small town of Prosperity, outside Columbia, and spend their vacations at Nascar races. They voted for Santorum.
"He just came off a little bit better than the others," said Karen Grafton, 51, a real estate agent who served 20 years in the Air Force. "He stuck to his story about what he has done and what he will do."
The Graftons' votes, however, like many veterans', can't be taken as evidence of a hard-line military stance. Registered Republicans, they cast their ballots for Obama in 2008 because he promised to bring the troops home from Iraq.
"I went to war for George Bush," said Grafton, 48, a retired Army master sergeant who served in special operations units in Somalia and Iraq. "But we can't keep policing the world."
Karen Grafton, a retired Air Force recruiter, said she'll be "glad when we're out of Afghanistan." The military budget? "I'm sure it can be cut," she said. "Everyone has to make concessions." Still, many former soldiers worry that Pentagon cuts could mean stingier salaries, pensions, and education and housing benefits.
In a squat building on a rutted street in West Columbia, three dozen former soldiers gathered around hot dogs and sodas for the Disabled Veterans of America's monthly meeting. Colorful military banners festooned the walls. The talk was somber.
Could someone volunteer to help care for "a fellow living in a dilapidated roach-infested trailer?" asked Chapter Commander John Ashmore. Could people contribute funds to an ex-Marine whose hospital bills were "overwhelming"?
Ashmore thanked everyone for distributing canned goods to the needy. And he had some news: "Veterans healthcare will be exempt from federal budget cuts," he said. "President Obama has signed a 3.6 percent cost of living increase to your benefits."
"I've already got it spent," shouted one of the group.
At the back, John Rush, 44, sat with a brace on an injured leg. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after two tours in Iraq. "The explosions, the bombs going off. You're scared, you're mad. The stress wears you out."
Rush got out of the Army in 2008, but it took three years for the government to approve his paperwork for psychiatric treatment. He is unemployed, and much of the time he says he feels "confused."
As for voting in this presidential election: "I haven't had that spark to get out and register."
The Pentagon counts more than 6,300 American dead and 33,000 wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Rand Corp study estimates that as many as 300,000 post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD or major depression, and about 320,000 may have experienced traumatic brain injuries, mainly from bombs.
For combat veterans such as McDowell, who enlisted at 19, the statistics are starkly personal.
With his direct gaze, erect posture and fondness for war mementos, he may seem to fit the stereotype of a battle-hardened sergeant. But this father of five shudders at the memory of the young Vietnamese-American at Fort Jackson, whose fear of deployment was brushed off by an officer. The soldier tried to commit suicide by shoving a pencil up his nose into his brain.
He chokes up when he recalls "the geek-faced kid" from Oklahoma who was brought in to fix office computers in McDowell's Iraq bomb dismantling unit. The young man, with no combat training, was sent into the field to hack into terrorists' laptops. Within weeks he suffered a mental breakdown. Returning stateside, he shot his two children to death and killed himself.
"It was sheer terror," McDowell said of the improvised explosive devices that guerrillas hid along roadways. "They'd strap gasoline cans to IEDs. Our soldiers burned alive. You'd hear them screaming, and you couldn't do anything."
Now he is "watching the primaries very closely to see who will be the least careless with soldiers and their families."
Despite widespread disillusionment over recent wars, most veterans support some form of military action to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. That doesn't mean they want another ground war: Veterans lean toward a military spending policy that emphasizes special forces and unmanned systems.
Terry Seawright, a Navy reservist who drives a Fedex truck, voted for Obama in 2008 and plans to do so again in 2012. "I like the coolness and calmness of him," said Seawright, 46. "I like the way he handled Egypt and Libya. He said, ‘No troops on the ground.'"
Unless a conflict with Iran or Syria pushes foreign policy out front, economic issues seem more likely to sway the veterans' vote than military concerns - as is true for the country generally. Like other Americans, former soldiers are worried about jobs, the federal deficit, and the cost of living.
Michael Langston, a Baptist minister who served as commander of 110 military chaplains in Afghanistan, didn't carry a weapon but often visited the front lines. "I would go to trauma centers where they worked on soldiers who were burned and disfigured," he said. "We'd roll into villages where every man, woman and child had been massacred, and the Taliban had cut off heads and feet."
Back in the U.S., Langston, 57, suffered nightmares and sweats. Always a mild-mannered man, he began yelling at his kids. When a vehicle backfired in a supermarket parking lot, "I hit the ground and rolled under a car." He was diagnosed with PTSD.
Looking back, Langston, a graduate of the Naval War College, sees "a failed policy. When we leave, these places go back to the way they've done everything for thousands of years."
For all his frustration over military interventions, Langston said the election issues for him are healthcare, jobs and economic stability. A lifelong Republican, he voted for Gingrich in the primary but now supports Romney. "The economy is still faltering, the job rate has not gotten any better regardless of the hype, and the gas prices are killing us," he said.
Overall, like the rest of the nation, former soldiers are deeply concerned about the future. Only 24 percent in the Reuters poll said the country is headed in the right direction, with 60 percent saying it is off on the wrong track.
Langston said social issues will not influence his vote. As for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the now repealed policy that forced homosexuals out of the military, he came around to supporting repeal after initially opposing it. "An individual has a right to be who they are," he said.
According to the Reuters/Ipsos poll, a majority of veterans now agree with him.
With the unpredictability of foreign involvements and the fragility of the domestic economy, it is too early to say who will eventually win the veteran vote.
Karen Grafton, who voted for Obama in 2008 based on his promise to end the Iraq war, now says, "I want someone to get us out of this economic turmoil. That's No. 1. I'm not sure he is the person to do that. But I don't blame him. He inherited a mess."
Asked about Obama's handling of his job, 27 percent of veterans approved, and 37 percent disapproved, with the rest undecided.
In his study, below a movie poster of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," McDowell, the Ron Paul supporter, flipped through pages of an 82nd Airborne Division yearbook, lingering on photographs of dead comrades. He recalled their ages, how many children they had, and how they died.
Partly for their sake, he avidly follows the campaign. He was turned off by mudslinging among Republican candidates, he said. And Obama? "If no one else can get their act together, I'll vote for that Democrat," he said. "My concern is who will do right for the soldier."
Reporting by Margot Roosevelt; Editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther