By Colin Hanna, President, Let Freedom Ring
Veterans Day was just a few days ago, so I thought it might be a good time to think about the role of the military in American society today.
There are about 18 million veterans in the US today, and the percentage of the US population with military experience has been continually shrinking since the end of the draft in 1973. In 1980, about 18 percent of all US adults were veterans, so that means that well over one-third of all men were veterans. Today it’s only 7% overall. As a nation, we are justly proud that our military is 100% volunteers, but as a veteran myself during the Vietnam years, I know I served alongside many who were either draftees or who joined to avoid the draft whose lives were vastly improved by their military service. One way or another, they answered the call to duty. They learned discipline, teamwork and the importance of character over wealth, privilege, education or ethnicity. They came from all walks of life, but they were shaped into one, at least for a while. They wore the same clothes, called uniforms, which is more significant than it sounds. The very word “uniform” conveys the fact that their personal tastes and habits were disregarded in favor of uniformity. While uniformity in dress may be a relatively trivial concept to the average non-military person, to those who wear the uniform, it is much more than merely a symbol – it is an acknowledgement that the wearer has sublimated his or her personal preferences to a greater cause, service to their nation, and it requires cohesion.
There’s some societal cost to having only 7 percent of adults with that experience. When it was higher, it may have made societal unity somewhat easier. Our society is certainly more fractious now than it was then. The qualities of courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication to duty and personal integrity that were drilled into them prepared them to serve a cause larger than themselves.
As with trends in the U.S. population overall, the veteran population will become more racially and ethnically diverse. Between 2021 and 2046, the share of veterans who are non-Hispanic White is expected to drop from 74% to 62%. The share of veterans who are Hispanic is expected to double from 8% to 16%, while the share who are Black is expected to increase slightly from 13% to 15%.
Fewer members of Congress have prior military experience than in the past. As the share of Americans who are veterans has declined, so has the share of legislators who have previously served in the military. In the current Congress, 17% of lawmakers in both houses had prior military service, down drastically from just a few decades ago.
The share of senators who are veterans reached a post-Korean War peak of 81% in 1975, while the share among House members peaked in 1967 at 75%. However, in recent elections, both Democrats and Republicans have made special efforts to recruit veterans for congressional contests, and the newly elected freshman class includes 15 such lawmakers. Would our dysfunctional Congress function more smoothly if 80% or so of its members had been required to work together cohesively in the military?
Veteran’s day, originally called Armistice Day, was originally designated as a day to celebrate the end of World War I. The first World War ended November 11, 1918 and the legislation that created Veteran’s Day was, and I quote, “dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.”
As time went on and we engaged in further conflicts during World War II and Korea, veterans’ groups lobbied for a change. Rather than honoring the armistice and only those who served in World War I, the holiday would now honor all veterans from every war and conflict the United States had encountered. We’ve honored our troops and their service and sacrifice ever since.
This week, people throughout the country gathered together to remember, to honor, and to pay gratitude to those who served our country. They came together as a way to say we remember. From the Soldiers who shivered and starved through the winter at Valley Forge to the doughboys crouched in the muddy trenches of France to the platoon who patrolled the hazy jungles of Vietnam to the young man or woman patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan and to those who never saw combat but were prepared for it if needed, we remember and honor them all. That’s why Veterans Day is such a meaningful American holiday. Veterans are the backbone of American society, and as we remember them, we might also think about how to appreciate them and put them in positions of leadership..