Sunday, December 4, 2015 || By Michael Romain || Updated: 4:25 PM
As the data indicate, the experience of war and the institution of the military have become exotic to most Americans, even as these two realities dominate our lives
In a recent Atlantic article entitled “The Tragedy of the American Military,” James Fallows lays bare the American public’s absurd relationship with the insitution tasked with protecting it.
The American public’s “reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them—has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm,” Fallows writes.
“But it is not,” he insists in the next sentence.
That’s because back during the immediate aftermath of WWII, when “nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty–which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve),” most Americans weren’t guilt-ridden, ashamed or blithely ignorant with regards to their military.
They didn’t have to overcompensate for not being invested in ‘the fight for freedom’, for not having a stake in ‘making the world safe for democracy’ by obsequious, fawning — and more often than not — fake adulation for ‘our’ sacrificial troops.
“Among older Baby Boomers, those born before 1955, at least three-quarters have had an immediate family member—sibling, parent, spouse, child—who served in uniform,” Fallows writes. “Of Americans born since 1980, the Millennials, about one in three is closely related to anyone with military experience.”
Among the Baby Boomers, the military wasn’t “exotic territory.” It was a real, lived experience. And so, being apart of it, these older Americans felt they had earned the right to criticize it, to see both its good and its bad. They didn’t have to make up facts about it or imagine scenarios. War was something they lived through, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if many of them died, are dying or will die, with the resolve not to live it again.
Not so much with the current war-plagued generations, Fallows notes.
“As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years,” he writes. “As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.”
According to an interactive map based on data compiled by the Department of Defense and the U.S. Census Bureau, the local reality reflects this national crisis of public disengagment with the military.
The map, which is embedded in Fallows’ Atlantic article, shows that in the 601 zip code area — which encompasses many Proviso Township communities such as Bellwood, Broadview, Forest Park, Maywood and Melrose Park — there were 35,833 military enlistments between 2001 and 2010. That’s in an area with a population of 1,445,887. For every 1,000 residents in that 601 area, about 25 were enlisted in the military, which is among the lowest per capita ratios in the country.
Of course, there are deep reasons for this ratio. For instance, the population of military-age and military-eligible individuals in each zip code area may vary extensively, thus affecting its per capita ratio; however, these subtleties aren’t sufficient to dismiss the preponderance of data nationwide that Fallows sums up above.
If anything, those subtle demographic distinctions may only reinforce one of Fallows’s key points, which is that the burden of actually fighting the nation’s wars falls disproportionately on those who have the least amount of power in our society; while the most powerful people, the ones most responsible for making war, are the people who are least accountable for, and who face the lightest consequences of, war. Even when those wars turn out to be exceptionally bad and exceptionally expensive.
Click for the full interactive graphic: The first map above (in green) shows per-capita military enlistments from 2000 to 2010, grouped by 3-digit zip code. The second (in red) shows the home towns of deceased soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Enlistment rates vary widely—in 2010, only 0.04 percent of the Upper East Side of Manhattan (zip code prefix 101) enlisted, while the U.S. Virgin Islands (prefix 008) had an enlistment rate of 0.98 percent. When it comes to lives lost, U.S. territories (particularly Guam) shoulder an outsized burden. (Map design and development: Frankie Dintino. Sources: Department of Defense, US Census Bureau). The 601 area is noted by the black box, which was added by Village Free Press.
No American president since George H.W. Bush has experienced active military service. Not Clinton. Not Bush II. Not Obama. And for that matter. Not Cheney. Not Biden. Gore served a stint in Vietnam, but was largely isolated from the fighting. And definitely not any of their children (the exceptions are so minor as to be insignificant).
And yet, war and the military responsible for perpetuating it, has assumed a virtually unimpeachable, almost tyrannical, authority over the lives of most Americans — without most of us even knowing.
That means President Obama must take seriously the notion that the federal government doesn’t have enough money to fund Social Security (i.e., a program that, grossly generalized, prevents old people from dying in abject poverty) and other much-needed programs; but it can, however, spend trillions of unaccountable dollars on defense contracts for military technology that even many defense experts concede is practically useless.
That means that a computer whiz who alerts the media about the government’s unconstitutional surveillance of millions of Americans’ phone and internet communications faces life in prison and is publicly castigated by President Obama; but the man who signed off on America’s systematic, unlawful torturing of war prisoners, a significant number of whom were innocent, not only gets no scolding from the President — he gets an interview with Chuck Todd.
Fallows writes that those absurdities are simply part and parcel of a mood and a culture and an era he rather accurately calls Chickenhawk Nation:
“If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.” VFP