Those Serving In The US Military Don’t Actually Represent The Country As A Whole


Editor’s Note: This article is part of a new Task & Purpose column called “Swamp Warfare,” in which thought leaders examine the growing intersection of military, politics, and policy in the United States.

Under the Trump administration, the likelihood that the nation goes to war seems to be at an all-time high. But is it really “the nation” that goes to war these days? The military has been all volunteer for decades, and has grown increasingly segregated from society at large. A few trends stand out in who chooses to serve: The vast majority of service members are male, the South is overrepresented, and perhaps most worrisome, military service has increasingly become a family affair.

Fewer and fewer communities are bearing the burden of sending loved ones to war. One consequence of the end of conscription is the ability to have very few Americans impacted by or connected to service, and a society that struggles to understand and interact with those who do. Less than 1% of Americans serve on active duty at any time, and the veteran population comprises less than 10% of the population. The best ambassadors for military service are those who have served themselves, so it should come as no surprise that the armed forces have become increasingly insular.

First Lt. Nicholas Lundin, the 480th Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance Wing chief of current operations, stands between his dad, Michael Lundin and grandfather, Ray Lundin while saying the oath of enlistment administered by Lt. Col. Brian Webster, presiding officer, May 24, 2017U.S. Air Force photo

This is not exactly a new phenomenon or even one that’s isolated to the military. The children of doctors become doctors, lawyers become lawyers — in sociology, the term for it is “professional inheritance.” And yet, neither the average doctor or lawyer is being asked to wield force on behalf of a democracy, making it very different when it comes to the generations of war we’re seeing in the military community today.

Families also carry the costs of military service, and surveys indicate military spouses are as likely to have a parent who served as service members today, many of whom already have a child serving as well. This used to be far closer to the norm – with 77% of adults over 50 indicating they had an immediate family member who served, as compared to only 33% of those ages 1829. These surveys echo the Department of Defense’s own findings that approximately 80% of enlisted recruits have a family member who served, with over 25% noting they had a parent who served. Though it varies from service to service, the trendline in American society is stark.

Not only does this isolation potentially allow for force to be used with relatively few consequences for presidents and Congress alike, it represents a fundamental weakness in the all-volunteer force. The military is struggling to ensure a steady stream of high-quality recruits, and if the incredible stress and operational tempo of the past few decades create a chasm in the propensity to serve among military families, it will cause serious damage to the recruiting pipeline. Veterans are also historically far more likely to recommend military service than civilians, but disillusionment could portend a time when that’s not the case, a trend already outlined in survey results showing families still on active duty are less likely to recommend military service than veterans.

Recruits take the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at Recruit Training Command, the Navy's only boot camp, 2012.U.S. Navy photo

The insularity of the force continues to be exacerbated by policies excluding Americans who otherwise meet all of the conditions necessary to serve. It is already difficult for the armed forces to find those who physically and mentally fit, have the requisite education, lack criminal records or disqualifying tattoos, and on top of all that, have a propensity to join the military. There is now the added issue of a force that has gone back on its commitments to service members — with the fate of transgender troops hanging in the balance, and many foreign nationals who are an immeasurable asset for their cultural knowledge, language skills, and willingness to serve, losing the path to citizenship they had been promised under the MAVNI program and depriving Americans who are serving from a critical resource to help them succeed on the battlefield.

The cross-section of service members who are being routinely deployed — adding to the number of troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, waiting just over the border in South Korea, or executing grueling and sometimes fatal training here at home in the United States — can’t be said to truly represent the country as a whole. Rather than front-page stories, fatalities seem to barely register as a blip on the radar of our public consciousness. It is hard to believe there would be so little outcry over the recent slew of training accidents, the risk to the lives of service members and their families should North Korea choose retaliation at the hands of an inflammatory tweet, or the haphazard “more of the same” strategy for Afghanistan if more Americans knew someone in uniform.

Though all of the services are striving to gain a broader cross-section of America in their recruiting, it is a difficult needle to thread. When trying to hit accessions goals, places where the military has historically been successful in recruiting make appealing options, offering the best return on investment (as measured by sheer number of contracts signed) compared to places like the Northeast. However, this short-term view is costing the military a long-term footprint across the United States that would do a better job of ensuring there is a future pipeline of recruits by spreading the history of military service beyond the small communities who raise their right hands over and over. The lack of engagement of the public with the military has consequences beyond simply who is successfully recruited into the armed forces, raising questions as to the proper role of a volunteer force in a democratic society.

Amy Schafer is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of the report “Generations of War: The Rise of the Warrior Caste and The All-Volunteer Force.

In this June 7, 2009 file photo Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) points to a player behind him after making a basket in the closing seconds against the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. He was 41. (Associated Press/Mark J. Terrill)

Beloved basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday. Two days earlier, Army Spc. Antonio I. Moore was killed during a vehicle rollover accident while conducting route clearing operations in Syria.

Which one more deserves your grief and mourning? According to Maj. Gen. John R. Evans, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, you only have enough energy for one.

Read More
A screenshot from a video appearing to show the wreckage of an Air Force E-11A communications aircraft in Afghanistan (Twitter)

A U.S. E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft crashed on Monday on Afghanistan, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has confirmed.

Read More
U.S. Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines assigned to the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) 19.2, observe protestors toss Molotov Cocktails over the wall of the Baghdad Embassy Compound in Iraq, Dec. 31, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot)

One person was injured by Sunday's rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Task & Purpose was learned. The injury was described as mild and no one was medically evacuated from the embassy following the attack.

Read More
The front gate of Dachau (Pixabay/Lapping)

At age 23 in the spring of 1945, Guy Prestia was in the Army fighting his way across southern Germany when his unit walked into hell on earth — the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

"It was terrible. I never saw anything like those camps," said Prestia, 97, who still lives in his hometown of Ellwood City.

Read More
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) underway on its own power for the first time while leaving Newport News Shipbuilding, Newport News, Virginia (USA), on April 8, 2017. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni)

Against a blistering 56 mph wind, an F/A-18F Super Hornet laden with fuel roared off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford and into the brilliant January sky.

No glitches.

Chalk up another step forward for America's newest and most expensive warship.

The Ford has been at sea since Jan. 16, accompanied by Navy test pilots flying a variety of aircraft. They're taking off and landing on the ship's 5 acre flight deck, taking notes and gathering data that will prove valuable for generations of pilots to come.

The Navy calls it aircraft compatibility testing, and the process marks an important new chapter for a first-in-class ship that has seen its share of challenges.

"We're establishing the launch and recovery capabilities for the history of this class, which is pretty amazing," said Capt. J.J. "Yank" Cummings, the Ford's commanding officer. "The crew is extremely proud, and they recognize the historic context of this."

Read More