The Disappearing Veterans

Veterans accounted for 11 percent of the voting age population in 2000, according to the U.S. Census, down from 21 percent in 1970. By 2030, that figure will shrink to 6 percent, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Service in the military provides perspective on war, perspective on sacrifice," said University of Denver political -science professor Tom Knecht. "To the extent that we're losing that, that might be kind of a problem." more

The professor is right. The story linked above is mainly concerned with the lack of military experience among the current group of presidential candidates. However it was the 11% figure that grabbed my attention. Is it critical that our presidents be veterans? It helps, but isn't absolutely necessary. Nor does it guarantee someone will be a great leader. Jimmy Carter was an Annapolis graduate and veteran, after all.

(Incidentally, while you all know I am no fan of George W. Bush, the argument that he dodged the draft in the Air National Guard is a little unfair. Flying fighter jets is not a safe thing to do, even if no one shooting at you. He was probably in more danger in that cockpit on training flights than a lot of people who went to Vietnam to work inside heavily fortified bases.)

Anyway, the point to be made is that everyone who wears the uniform, in whatever capacity, has faced the fact that they might have to kill or be killed for reasons that are not their own choice. This inspires an awareness of the need to use military force only when absolutely necessary. Since the president is the one who makes that decision, it helps for him to have this personal experience. It wouldn't hurt if Congress did, too.

In Robert Heinlein's classic novel Starship Troopers (the original book, not the execrable movie version), the futuristic society consists of "citizens" who can vote and hold office, and everyone else. How do you get to be a citizen? Simple: serve in the military. It's totally voluntary. There is no draft, and in fact if you apply the military must accept you and find something useful for you to do. Finish your term honorably, and you are discharged and become a citizen.

There is a classroom scene in the book where they discuss the rationale behind this system. It boils down to this: citizenship goes to those who have demonstrated, by their actions, that they are willing to place the common good above their own freedom and safety.

Even in Heinlein's imaginary universe, few were willing to make this kind of sacrifice. It was much easier to accept a "free ride" from those who did serve. Those who served were generally OK with this arrangement, because that's the kind of people they were.

How about our own time? It's not terribly different. Among the key parts of society - say, the educated white males who dominate most businesses and professions - the proportion of veterans is well below 10%. Everyone else assuages their guilt by saying they "care for the troops," but when it comes to actually getting in the line of fire themselves, or letting their own children do so, few heed the call. It's easier to let the other guy do it.

Am I calling for a draft? No. I would be against it, in fact. My point is that the people who run our society are getting a free ride. What we have in America is the opposite of Heinlein's vision: veterans serve honorably and, if they survive, are then outnumbered and largely ignored by the rest of the voters.

Some people will bristle at the term "mercenaries" but it is at least partially accurate in describing what we have built. We hire soldiers, pay them well, and promise them all kinds of benefits. Then we use them - to death, sometimes - to further our national objectives. I don't think it is too much to ask that those who define these objectives have an appreciation for the costs of their decisions. Most do not. Nonetheless, the soldiers will drive on, because that's what soldiers do.

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