Our university community reflects an unfortunate national pattern: lack of involvement with and awareness of the U.S. military. Regardless of what one thinks of our decision to invade Iraq and our strategy in Afghanistan, this gap raises important questions about the quality of our citizenship.
Consider first the national pattern. The percentage of Americans serving in the armed forces is less than one percent of our population. The trend toward a smaller military began with the drawdown of U.S. troops from Vietnam, the shift from a draft to an all-volunteer force in 1973 and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But it has persisted during our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that our involvement in these conflicts has lasted longer than WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
Although an all-volunteer force might make our military more professional in the short run, the length of these wars and the relatively small percentage of our population actually in the military has had a significant cost.
First, they have resulted in multiple lengthy deployments that in turn contribute to significant problems for our troops when they return home. These include a large and steady increase in the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (according to one study, rates of PTSD jumped from 0.2 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2008). They include rising suicide rates. At present, over 6,500 vet suicides occur annually; this is more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began. A study in the American Journal of Public Health reported that among men aged 17 to 24, being a vet almost quadruples the risk of suicide. And they include rising rates of homelessness, including among female veterans (who account for 8 percent today of all vets compared to 4 percent in 1990).
Second, they have led to the most significant dependence on private military contractors in our nation’s history (accounting for roughly half of Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan). Without detracting from their commitment to the nation’s defense, reliance on contractors raises serious questions of accountability and control.
Finally, the small percentage of our citizens in the military is less and less representative of America as a whole. Our military comes from few geographical locations and fewer segments of the population. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted, the result is that, for most of us, “Warfare has become something for other people to do.” This disconnect has its own costs: It precludes the kind of cross-class, citizenship building that occurred when all were expected to serve. It deprives young people of the pressure and opportunity to get informed about decisions that affect their lives. It enables leaders to commit troops without adequate national debate and budgets. With little skin in the game, it enables all of us to claim that we “support our troops” by wearing American flag pins but avoiding tough tradeoffs, including whether we should tax ourselves to provide adequate equipment for our troops, or whether we should just kick the bill down the road for our kids and grandkids. All of this contributes to a sense that we are not “all in this together.”
The situation at Emory reflects this national pattern. According to the Registrar’s Office, there are just 31 veterans out of roughly 7,000 Emory undergraduates and graduate students. Although a campus-wide debate in 2003 about the Iraq invasion drew over 1,000 participants, there has been little discussion of the conflicts since then. While we have not done a systematic survey, our impression is that very few of our courses address issues of military deployment, and very few of our students devote much thought to these issues. Although many are open to some form of national service, many students see the idea of compulsory military service as a violation of personal freedom rather than a citizen’s duty.
To address this disconnect at Emory, we decided to host a radio program on the campus station, WMRE, devoted to interviewing those with experience and/or knowledge of military issues. From our interview with an Emory graduate student who served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, we learned of the challenges of reconciling the need to win over the local population with the need for effective military responses to the Taliban; we learned of concerns with and resentment toward private contractors operating under different accountability standards; and we learned of the challenges of returning stateside. From our interview with the volunteer coordinator at the Atlanta VA hospital, we learned of the VA’s engagement with community and veterans’ groups; we learned of the commitment of the VA’s medical providers; and we learned of the importance of volunteers. From our interview with two Emory researchers, we learned of the difficult emotional shift from the toughness required for combat to the openness required to address PTSD, and we learned of Emory’s important role in developing therapies for vets and others struggling with PTSD. Finally, from our interview with the author of a book on electronic medical records in the VA health system, we learned of the impressive results of an open-source EMR system developed by doctors within the VA.
We at Emory can do a lot more. Whether in neuroscience, economics, psychology, public health, political science or history, we can enrich our syllabi to help our students learn how the various disciplines deal with military issues. We can provide opportunities for our students to engage in ongoing volunteer work with the Atlanta VA. We can encourage the return of ROTC. We can build on the emerging interest, from individuals across the political spectrum, to call for compulsory national service, including military service. Failure to move in this direction means ignoring Thucydides warning: “A nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its laws made by cowards and its wars fought by fools.”
Richard Doner is a professor in the Emory Department of Political Science.
Matthew Pesce is a College sophomore majoring in Political Science.