Feb. 1, 1995

In 1951, New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays was the National League’s rookie of the year. The following season he wore a different uniform. Like many others of his generation from all walks of life, he had been inducted into the Army. Among those soldiering the same year as Willie Mays was a future senator of some note, PFC Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Later on–with several gold records already behind him–Elvis Presley did his hitch, too.

It was a time when virtually all men who could serve in the armed forces did serve. Those who didn’t were more pitied than envied. Draftees were out in two years. Recruits stayed at least four years but got a better choice of duty and training. Most veterans were proud of the experience. A great many of them regarded it as an important part of their personal development.

Things changed in 1973 with the coming of the all-volunteer force, which did more than end the military draft. It also brought to a close what had been a major rite of passage that celebrities and the sons of the rich and the famous shared with the rest of us. After 1973, men reaching age eighteen were no longer pushed toward service by the draft or by cultural norms. The volunteer force set up a major shift in the demographics of the nation.

Military service peaked during the mobilization for World War II. Accordingly, seventy-six percent of American men today between the ages of seventy and seventy-four are veterans. By contrast, less than a tenth of men under age thirty are veterans. With conscription abolished and the armed forces getting smaller, veterans are a diminishing minority. For the most part, what young people know of military service they will have heard from their fathers, seen in the movies, or otherwise gained secondhand.

  • Over the past two centuries, forty-one million persons have served the nation in war. Most of them, about eighty-five percent, served in one of the major conflicts of the twentieth century. World War II alone accounted for forty percent of all who have served in American forces throughout history.
  • Some of those who served did not survive to join the ranks of veterans. In the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, for example, 613,727 American military members lost their lives. (Another 1,132,435 sustained wounds that were not mortal.)
  • At present, twenty-nine percent of the nation’s civilian men age eighteen or older are veterans. The current population of living American veterans is 26.5 million. Since 1993, the number of Vietnam-era veterans, now 31.2 percent of the total, has exceeded the number of living World War II veterans. The average veteran is 56.6 years old. About 4.4 percent of all veterans are women.
  • While the population of veterans is decreasing, the number of military retirees is increasing. This trend reflects the large standing forces of the postwar period and a greater representation of career people in the force. The current military retired population is 1.555 million. This year, for the first time, the number of retirees will surpass the number of persons serving on active duty (1.526 million). Since 1972, the service accounting for the largest share of retirees (36.5 percent) has been the Air Force, which has 164,882 officer and 403,182 enlisted retirees.
  • In the new 104th Congress, 39.26 percent of the members are veterans, compared with 44.3 percent in the departing 103d Congress. Military experience is more prevalent in the Senate, where fifty-four percent of the members have served in the armed forces, than in the House of Representatives, where thirty-six percent have served. One surprise is that more freshman members of the 104th Congress are veterans (21.65 percent) than was the case with the 103d (18.52 percent).

The percentage of veterans in Congress can be expected to deteriorate with each passing election. Elsewhere in government, the representation has deteriorated already. According to John Wheeler, a Vietnam veteran who campaigned for the Clinton-Gore ticket, only four percent of male staff members in the Executive Office of the President in June 1994 were veterans.

The military still rates higher than other institutions in national attitude polls, but that could change. News coverage of the armed forces emphasizes waste, mistakes, and scandal. The entertainment industry depicts the military as bumbling, corrupt, and depraved. When people do not have experience on which to base their judgments, images delivered by the news and entertainment media can have a powerful influence.

It does not follow automatically that no one except veterans can understand the military and military people. As the percentage of veterans continues to decline and fewer Americans have military experience, however, the nation’s leaders have an added responsibility. They must try harder to understand.

It is not simply a matter of tradition or a footnote in historical trivia. The decline of national military experience marks a gradual but fundamental change in the relationship between the armed forces and the society they serve. That is an issue of national security.