Ten days ago, I spent Memorial Day weekend in much the same way as millions of other Americans. I enjoyed some increasingly rare family time, and I thought about our nation’s veterans, including my father and my uncles, World War II veterans all.
With one year of medical school under his belt, my father served as a medic during the massive D-Day invasion of Normandy. He never once spoke of those awful days with my sister or me, but his military service was clearly a formative experience of his life. He kept up with his 30th Infantry Division buddies, most of whom he would never have known outside the Army, until the day he drew his final breath.
My father and uncles lived in a different time than today’s military members. Virtually every man they knew served in the military for some period of time, either because they volunteered to defend our country or because they were drafted. Military men came from all states, all education levels, all economic stations. Almost every able-bodied man served.
Today the draft is gone. Only volunteers serve, and not all who volunteer are enlisted. That fact of American life in place since 1973 has changed how Americans think of both military service and the work of our warriors, if we think of them at all.
David Zucchino, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who attended Terry Sanford High School here in our community, has co-authored with David S. Cloud a recent series about this changed reality for the Los Angles Times. The articles, centered in the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community, focus on the differences between a half-century ago when our nation was in the throes of a painful and controversial conflict in Southeast Asia in which 2.7-million American men were drafted into service and today, when less than one percent of Americans are volunteers in our armed forces. Perhaps because everyone knew someone who served in Vietnam, American news outlets, particularly television, concentrated on war coverage. Today, when most Americans do not know active-duty personnel and perhaps not even veterans, media coverage of today’s conflicts in the Middle East is less extensive and highly fragmented in our new digital world.
It is quite possible to avoid thinking about service members and what they do altogether.
This “segregation,” as Zucchino and Cloud refer to it, is both geographically and socially distinct. Five states — California, Virginia, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, are home to nearly half of all military personnel, and our own community experiences them and their families as friends, neighbors and co-workers. Residents of the other 45 states do not. What is more, military personnel and their families are increasingly isolated on military bases that, like Fort Bragg, have restricted non-military access and which provide amenities such as schools, healthcare, shopping and entertainment on post. Military bases are “our most exclusive gated communities,” says Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran turned think tank executive. A 2012 Pew Research Center study confirmed that the connections between military personnel and the broader general population are becoming more distant.
“The U.S. military today is gradually becoming a separate warrior class, many analysts say, that is becoming increasingly distinct from the public it is charged with protecting,” write Zucchino and Cloud.
It gets even worse, at least to me.
The growing gulf means that military families who bear enormous sacrifices for the rest of us lead lives we do not readily understand. Economic, educational and — yes, class differences play roles as well. Lt. Col. Remi M. Hajjar, a West Point professor, laid it out for the LA Times series this way. “I am well-aware that many Americans, especially our elite classes, consider the military a bit like a guard dog. They are very thankful for our protection, but they probably wouldn’t want to have it as a neighbor, and they certainly are not going to influence or inspire their own kids to join that pack of Rottweilers to protect America.”
Even Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair, General Martin Dempsey, admits concern. “The last decade of war has affected the relationship between our society and the military … We can’t allow a sense of separation to grow between us.”
George Baroff, a retired professor who served in World War II and who lives in the academic community of Chapel Hill, is surprised when someone thanks him for his service, as many are wont to do these days. “You never, ever heard that in World War II,” he told Zucchino and Cloud. “And the reason is, everybody served.”
I cannot imagine our dysfunctional and highly partisan Congress discussing reinstating a draft, nor would I want them to do so, though mandatory national service is a conversation well worth having. The reality is that we really are all in this together, and we cannot prosper and endure by paying a small group of people to protect us and then just forget about it.
We all need to have some skin in the game. Too many of us do not now.