December 15, 2008 – In Hopewell Township, N.J., the veterans of American Legion Post 339 have put their building up for sale. “Today’s vets don’t come out,” 82-year old Jim Hall told The Times of Trenton last month. The post is down from 425 paying members in the 1960s and ’70s to 202 this year; only about a dozen regularly attend.
But it’s America that has changed, not vets.
Since 1970, the population of the United States has grown by about 50 percent, from roughly 200 million to 300 million. Over the same period, the number of active-duty armed forces has fallen approximately 50 percent, from 3 million to 1.4 million. A far smaller percentage of the citizenry now serves in the military.
Whereas in 1969 13 percent of Americans were veterans, in 2007 only 8 percent of us were.
Even more important than these general demographic shifts is the change wrought by the end of the draft in 1973. Until then, military service was distributed pretty evenly across regions. But that is no longer true. The residential patterns for current veterans and the patterns of state-level contributions of new recruits to the all-volunteer military have a distinct geographic tilt. And tellingly, the map of military service since 1973 aligns closely with electoral maps distinguishing red from blue states.
In 1969, the 10 states with the highest percentage of veterans were, in order: Wyoming, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, California, Oregon, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Connecticut and Illinois.
In 2007, the 10 states with the highest percentage of post-Vietnam-era veterans were, in order: Alaska, Virginia, Hawaii, Washington, Wyoming, Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Maryland and Georgia.
Over the past four decades, which states have disappeared from the top 10? California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Illinois, all big blue states that have voted Democratic in the past five presidential elections. These states and another blue state, New York, which ranked 12th in 1969, are among the 10 states with the lowest number of post-Vietnam vets per capita. New Jersey comes in 50th of the 50 states; just 1 percent of current residents have served in the military since Vietnam.
Little wonder Jim Hall’s American Legion post is fading away.
This is not simply an issue of people retiring to warm states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas. A 2005 Heritage Foundation analysis of Defense Department and census data on enlistments found that Montana, Alaska, Florida, Wyoming, Maine and Texas send the most young people per capita to the military. The states with the lowest contribution rates? Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
What’s clear from the data is that a major national institution, the U.S. military, now has tighter connections to some regions of the country than others.
And we can’t simply treat the uneven pattern of military service as an insignificant reflection of the cultural differences that characterize different regions of this diverse country. Military institutions across nations and throughout time have always been important creators of culture. They strive to develop unbreakable bonds of solidarity among their members based on shared values, experiences and outlooks. In this country, the military’s leadership role in racial integration has been understood in just this way.
The issue now is not racial integration but cultural separation. If young people from different regions and social backgrounds either enter or steer clear of the armed forces, military service will become, over time, an experience that doesn’t ease but exacerbates preexisting cultural differences. Is the all-volunteer military already having this effect?
I spotted the link between military service and regional partisan divisions when I was researching not military history but Internet political communication. After spending time on political Web sites of the right and left, I noticed that posts on right-leaning sites often employed military lingo — habits of developing monikers and jingles and of using the vocabulary of military tactics and strategy. Left-leaning sites, in contrast, mostly lacked any easily recognizable features of military language.
This is one sign that our public sphere already suffers from a division between military and non-military cultures. The division is not trivial, and without institutional change it is likely to be durable.
During the recent presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain called for restoring idealism and rededicating citizenship to service. Doing so would require paying attention to the fact that the all-volunteer military has dramatically segmented American experience.
It is time to think seriously about a structure for national service — both military and non-military — that could successfully integrate young people from different regions of the country so that they will come, at least, to understand each other. We need to weave a fabric of shared citizenship anew.