Posted by: bkivey | 28 November 2011

Military Service and Society

I’ve noticed that there is a certain type of newspaper article that appears on a semi-regular basis concerning the military and society. The details vary slightly but the gist is the same: there is an allegedly increasing ‘gap’ between the military and American society at large. The latest entry comes to us from a  New York Times article based on a report from the Pew Research Center.

The theory is that with fewer than 1% of Americans actively serving in the military at any given time, there are fewer shared concerns between the armed services and general society, possibly leading to rifts between the civilian leadership and armed forces. Apparently this is a potential problem only of concern to “some academics”, who are also seemingly worried that a bloodthirsty American populace will rush to war without regard for the human cost.

The focus of the studies that are the basis of the report was whether respondents had an immediate family member who was a veteran. The results would not seem to support the conclusions reached in academia. The demographic with the lowest percentage of immediate family veterans was 18 – 29, with 33% reporting a family connection. That seems fairly significant to me. The percentage of family veterans is above 50% for all other age groups. This is a ‘disconnect’?

The study notes that the percentage of the US population under arms is the lowest since the inter-war years between 1918 and 1941.  In 1945 the US had about 9% of the population under arms, but we’d just successfully prosecuted a world war. Because we haven’t had a conflict on anything like that scale since, one might reasonably expect that the percentage of the serving population would decline. At the height of the Vietnam War and with an active draft in 1970, the percentage of citizens under arms was about 1.5%, compared to 0.4% today. For comparison, the total number of police officers in the US is about 0.2% of the population. The average citizen is far more likely to have a professional interaction with a police officer than a soldier,  and I’ve never seen an article decrying the ‘disconnect’ between police and citizens.

In my family, I have a sister currently serving in the Army National Guard, and my father and uncle served in the Army and Coast Guard, respectively. But even if I didn’t have any family veterans, I can’t recall a work or social group I’ve been a part of the last twenty years that didn’t include at least one veteran. I imagine that experience is fairly typical. Most people in this country hold the military in high regard, which I suspect is the reason for the academic conclusion seemingly at odds with the data.

Because it’s fashionable in academic circles to discount the military and those who serve; in some institutions it’s practically a job requirement, I posit that the academics are frustrated with the high opinion most Americans have of veterans, and figure the only explanation is that people don’t know enough about the military. Thus, there must be a ‘disconnect’ between the military and society. Apparently they can’t imagine the reason for the high opinion is because the majority of Americans know a veteran or have one in their family.

It also seems that having a small percentage of a society under arms should be seen as a positive. Isn’t one of the rationales for a society to protect its members from hostilities? The more successful a society, the fewer of its members should have to stand under arms at a given time. I would think that for a society the size of the US to be able to provide for its security and meet its global commitments with fewer than 1/2 of 1% of its citizens in the military would be a testament to the skills and abilities of the armed forces and supporting industries.

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