Two recent news stories speak volumes about the American veteran experience. And, contrary to expectations, neither is about suicides, post-traumatic stress disorder, or traumatic brain injury.
Following the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, the U.S. Supreme Court began its first term since at least World War II without a veteran on the bench. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal was caught fabricating military experience in Vietnam.
These stories reflect a paradox: American civilians continue to love what veterans represent - duty, sacrifice, strength, leadership - but we have less and less true understanding of the veteran experience. Although the United States is in the 10th year of a war, veterans have become increasingly marginalized, accounting for a dwindling share of middle-class and public life.
Justice Stevens' departure was a dramatic if overlooked example of the quiet disappearance of veterans from many powerful and prestigious positions. Since the end of the Vietnam War, in fact, the number of military veterans in Congress has fallen by roughly two-thirds (notwithstanding this year's crop of actual veteran candidates). Today, only 25 of our 100 U.S. senators are veterans, compared with 69 four decades ago. The proportion in the House has fallen from 75 percent in 1971 to 22 percent today.
The war in Afghanistan recently became the longest in U.S. history, so this disappearance of veterans can't be explained as a consequence of fewer or shorter wars. Rather, it's largely the result of the continued downsizing of American military forces and the end of the draft following Vietnam.
During World War II, 16 million troops were mobilized at a time when the U.S. population was roughly 140 million. In the Vietnam era, about 3.5 million were deployed (and more than 6 million served) when the population was nearly 200 million. Today, fewer than 2 million service members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from a population of more than 310 million.
So, since World War II, the proportion of the populace deployed to a recent war has dropped from about 11 percent to less than 1 percent. No wonder veterans refer to themselves as "the less than 1 percent."
Meanwhile, maintaining an all-volunteer military has lowered its average socio-economic status. Most recruits today join the armed forces to serve their country, be part of something larger, attain job security, and take advantage of financial incentives in hard times. Veterans often tell me, "I was in college, but I needed money." One consequence of all-volunteer armed forces is that working-class kids sign up in disproportionate numbers. Conscription was never entirely egalitarian, but it did make for a more level battlefield.
In their book The Casualty Gap, political scientists Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen show that since the Korean War, poorer communities have suffered a disproportionate share of the nation's wartime casualties. Given this trend, it's hardly surprising that the number of members of Congress with children serving in combat is in the single digits.
Why does this matter? First, veterans and the consequences of war are much easier to ignore when those fighting come from marginalized communities. Many Americans are insulated from the people we expect to die on our behalf.
Second, veterans' successful readjustment to civilian life depends on social support. Such support usually begins with sharing the war experience and interacting with sympathetic civilians. This is harder to do as vets become more alienated and isolated.
A number of factors can prevent veterans from sharing their experiences of war. Their stories sometimes involve death, destruction, agony, and moral chaos. Some worry that their stories will be misunderstood or unfairly judged, especially in a society where, as one veteran put it, they see themselves as "alien." And most veterans maintain an emotional armor long after their return to civilian life.
We make this silence harder to break when we become insulated from the real costs of war, including deaths, long deployments, post-traumatic stress, and the frustrations of the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy. Calling oneself a combat veteran without actually having experienced these consequences is particularly deleterious under these circumstances. As the midterm election approaches, we should be mindful of such disingenuous claims.
The duty to bridge this growing divide belongs not just to veterans, but to everyone. Ultimately, I have found, veterans want to tell their stories. And the more we reach out and listen, the more veterans will respond. We owe that much to them and to the rest of the country.