US Veterans in Decline

Veterans Day, which replaced the World War I-era Armistice Day, has become another chance to glorify America’s wars and the soldiers sent to fight them. But another reality is that the number of vets is in decline, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

As the nation uses the occasion of Veterans Day to express appreciation to its military veterans, we should reflect on another reason to cherish our veterans all the more: that there are so few of them, and their numbers are shrinking.

As a proportion of the total U.S. population the ranks of veterans have been thinning for more than four decades, from 13.7 percent in 1970 to about 7 percent as of the most recent census in 2010, and almost certainly less than that now. This trend cannot help but have significant effects on prevailing American attitudes about many things. These especially include, but are not limited to, matters of war, peace and national security.

President Barack Obama greets Richard Overton, with Earlene Love-Karo, in the Blue Room of the White House, Nov. 11, 2013. Mr. Overton,107 years old and the oldest living World War II veteran, attended the Veteran's Day Breakfast at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama greets Richard Overton, with Earlene Love-Karo, in the Blue Room of the White House, Nov. 11, 2013. Mr. Overton,107 years old and the oldest living World War II veteran, attended the Veteran’s Day Breakfast at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The effects are especially felt through the veteran or non-veteran status of political leaders. Here the corresponding trend is even more marked than for the general population. Thirty-five years ago 77 percent of members of Congress had served in the military. Today the proportion of members, in both the House and the Senate, who are military veterans is 20 percent.

This decline has at least three consequences. The most obvious one is that most of the people who most conspicuously pronounce on, and who vote on, matters involving the possible use of military force have no direct experience with such use.

This does not mean veterans have uniform views on such matters; looking at the postures of the members of Congress who have served in the military suggests that they do not. But it does mean that the complications and unforeseen practical consequences of employing force, which often have turned out to be the most important facet of such employment, probably are insufficiently understood or appreciated.

A second consequence is a broader loss of perspective regarding what is or is not important, what does or does not pose grave threats to the national interest, and what is or is not worth fighting for, not just military but politically.

In the hyper-partisan atmosphere that now prevails on Capitol Hill, it has become normal to hear members on one side of the aisle denounce those on the other side as the greatest threat the Republic has ever faced. We probably would be hearing less of that sort of thing if more members had served their country in a capacity in which they had faced real and serious threats from outside the Republic.

A third effect is to diminish a sense of shared effort on behalf of the nation, and of appreciation of how some of the greatest things this country has accomplished, and could accomplish in the future, involve an organized collective effort on a national basis. That sense is inherent to service in the military but is necessary in many other areas, including in domestic and economic policy.

Its diminution has made us all the more a nation of self-centered individuals focused narrowly on pursuing individual fortune or fame, and insufficiently aware of the common efforts needed to maintain the conditions that make that pursuit possible.

Clear implications do not follow from any of this regarding the best way to structure military service. Some have used similar observations to argue for reinstatement of conscription, but such arguments are offset by practical considerations regarding effectiveness of the force and by the unfairness of what is in effect forced labor obtained at below-market rates.

It is a reason, however, not just to honor our veterans but to wish we had more of them.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

Share this Article:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • NewsVine
  • Technorati
  • email

6 comments on “US Veterans in Decline

  1. Citizens in a purported democracy should all be willing to serve their country in some capacity – there should be universal service. For those with moral objections to participating in violent actions, i.e. war, then their service should be in some other supportive role based on their education and training. The problem with “conscription” in the past was its inequity in regard to whether citizens could afford to go to college or not. We should institute universal service with no exceptions, except for serious medical disability.

  2. “Some have used similar observations to argue for reinstatement of conscription, but such arguments are offset by practical considerations regarding effectiveness of the force and by the unfairness of what is in effect forced labor obtained at below-market rates.”

    My guess is that a volunteer military was implemented to head off the kind of mass demonstrations we saw during the VN war. Can you imagine the kinds of protests we would be having now with a draft in effect? We bribe young volunteers with rather high wages and benefits. Then the volunteers sweat out their TDYs wondering if their decision to serve will lead them to homelessness, joblessness, disability, and just plain forgotten—some risk. Let alone wonder later if the fight is really a legitimate one.

  3. Hillary on said:

    It is a reason, however, not just to honor our veterans but to wish we had more of them.

    Veterans who are committing suicide and are homeless in record numbers mainly as a result of defending “the Homeland” against those Vietnamese and Muslims who want to come over here and kill us all ?

  4. Frances in California on said:

    Eliminate officers; problem solved.

  5. Canada’s Remembrance; the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month honors the veterans of conflicts in which Canada has been engaged, beginning with the war of 1812 and continuing to the Libya action.
    Until the Korean conflict I felt that our participation in the wars were justified, however I now question our participation in the Korean conflict and feel a deep shame for our complicity in the invasion of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, countries that have done us no harm and were of no threat to others. In these cases we failed to pause and find out who were the good guys and who were the bad. Unfortunately in these cases, they were both.
    This is not to suggest that we not honor our veterans, but maintain a perspective recognizing their sacrifices, while condemning unjustified warfare.
    A disturbing element in Remembrance day are the predominantly Christian references; ignoring Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others of differing, or of no religion who fought for Canada.
    The USA owes its veterans more. Placing them in the tragic position of fighting unjustified and brutal wars surely leave lifetime scars more profound than otherwise.
    Honor our veterans yes, war no!

  6. Arthur Howard on said:

    Born in 1926, a time when professional military were considered bums, and having served in WWII in the USAAF,13AF, regular army, I look at what my country has become and bow my head in shame. The military has infected civilian life like a pernecious virus and has turned our nation away from the dream of WWII vets from a world-wide force for peace and cooperation as evidenced with the founding of the United Nations into the very rapacious, agressive monsterous society which we fought. back then.
    Down with veterans. May the very concept of veterans die out with the wars which create them.