Friday, November 25, 2011

A Growing 'Civilian-Military' Gap, and its Consequences

"A smaller share of Americans currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than at any time since the peace-time era between World Wars I and II," according to a new report from the Pew Research Center (hat tip New York Times).
During the past decade, as the military has been engaged in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, just one-half of one percent of American adults has served on active duty at any given time.1 As the size of the military shrinks, the connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant.
 The data reveals is "a large generation gap." According to the report, "more than three-quarters (77%) of adults ages 50 and older said they had an immediate family member –a spouse, parent, sibling or child – who had served in the military."  In contrast, for people under 50, "57% of those ages 30-49 say they have an immediate family member who served. And among those ages 18-29, the share is only one-third."

Military service is now more concentrated in certain families:  "Veterans are more than twice as likely as members of the general public to say they have a son or daughter who has served (21% vs. 9%)."  And overall, what the report calls a "military-civilian gap" is more pronounced among younger people. 
This suggests that the gap between veterans and the general public in the share that has family connections to the military may be a relatively new phenomenon. With the shrinking size of the military in recent decades there are now fewer connections between the military and the civilian world. This is reflected in the relatively small share of young adults (39%) with an immediate family member who has served in the armed forces.
The Pew report suggests that various political opinions are correlated with connections to family members who have served in the military, but there are deeper implications of the disconnect between Americans and American war-making.  The more distant and isolated Americans are from their nation's wars, the less they are politically engaged with American war policy.

Legal scholars argue here and elsewhere that the tendency of presidents to initiate military action without congressional authorization can only be reined in if Congress insists on playing its constitutional role.  But Congress will never play a more meaningful role in American war politics if the people aren't engaged.  The Pew Report helps us to see what appears to be a growing distance from the costs of war, potentially reinforcing contemporary political disengagement.

In War Time, I take up this point in the Conclusion:
In Iraq and Afghanistan, war...spread across borders as American drones fired on targets in Pakistan and elsewhere.  Death and destruction were the province of soldiers and of peoples in faraway lands.  The experience of wartime for most Americans largely devolved to encounters between travelers and airport screeners, as the Transportation Security Administration adopted intrusive new practices.  At home, wartime had become a policy rather than a state of existence....

As war goes on, Americans have lapsed into a new kind of peacetime.  It is not a time without war, but instead a time in which war does not bother everyday Americans.
I argue that keeping the war powers in check requires a politics of war, and that requires a citizenry attentive to the exercise of military power.  Our ideas about "wartime" play a role in the current disconnect, as a cultural framing of wartimes as discrete and temporary occasions, destined to give way to a state of normality, undermines democratic vigilance over on-going wars.

As Americans become more isolated from the costs of war, military engagement no longer seems to require the support of the American people.  Their disengagement does not limit the reach of American military action, but enables its expansion.


  1. None of this is new.

    After the Cold War was won, the United States returned to its standard posture between major wars of operating a relatively small military including a tiny fraction of the citizenry which is generally engaged in dozens of low intensity conflicts below the general political consciousness. Congress historically did not declare war in these low intensity conflicts.

  2. I wonder about the statistics of the agegroup variations for the question of do you have a family member with military time, as the young people only can look up toward the older generations, but the middle generation can look downward to young volunteers as well as upward to now old generation conscripts.

    True, though, new robotic elements in response to opponents who are to some degree dissociated from the polity of nationhood, tend to depersonalize war. Yet, the fluid dynamic of 'feeling war's impacts' still reaches all protagonists, even if only the humble taxpayer. There is a cost. And the mortgage lender is part of the economic stream of connectivity when taxpayer money flows get constricted.

    Spending time in a neighboring community adjoining a sprawling intelligence training fort taught me there are many intellectual integrative forces of which the modern military intelligensia is quite cognizant. Perhaps connecting those particular dots is a more abstruse exercise in these, and future, times; but war time retains many of its perennial traits, whether to a putative Spartan class, or an Athenian.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Bart -- I agree re: the many "low intensity" conflicts in US history, a topic I take up in the book. But the Pew Report takes up something more particular: the degree to which Americans have relatives who have served in the U.S. armed forces. Their study suggests a change from the older to the younger generations of current Americans. Do you know of data about changes in this demographic for earlier eras of US history?

    John -- the study takes into account the fact that younger folks will have fewer age cohorts to look to. It seems to be well done and interesting. I would follow the link from my post to the report for more details about their methodology & results.

  4. I worry somewhat about the tribalization I'm seeing among military and veterans. As a vet, I find such things as the huge number of motorcycle clubs that have sprung up over the last five years, the vast majority of which are veteran-only. I see a pulling away, a separation in which the military are the sheepdogs, who protect the sheep, but are somewhat disdainful of them, due to their lack of ability to protect themselves.