By Emily J. Yates, an Iraq veteran against the war
The phrase “no, thank you” is ubiquitous to American culture. It’s used to deflect all manner of advances – a simple, standardized mantra of dismissal, indicating politely, “I’m not interested, and please leave.” Have time for a quick survey? Can I tell you about our long-distance plan? Have you thought about a career in the U.S. Army? We toss a “no, thank you” over our shoulder, moving briskly past all that is undesirable, uninviting, uninteresting – in other words, unworthy of our attention.
I heard a whole slew of “no, thank you”s recently. It was down at the wharf in San Francisco, where thousands of tourists had flocked for the festivities of Fleet Week – a red-white-and-blue-spattered celebration of the American military, complete with taxpayer-funded flyovers by the Blue Angels. Hundreds of sailors and Marines in crisp dress uniforms flooded the piers, and military recruiters lined the pathways, almost visibly salivating over the prospect of making their quota early this month. An Iraq veteran myself, I stood in the midst of the crowd with several other veterans and allies of Iraq Veterans Against the War, handing out informational flyers containing military suicide statistics.
“Support the troops’ right to heal!” we called out above the roar of the jets passing over our heads for the umpteenth time. People swerved around us, gripping plastic souvenir bags emblazoned with variations on “GO ARMY.” Avoiding eye contact. “Stop the deployment of traumatized troops!” Faces forward, they kept moving – young, old and middle-aged alike – and if the Angels weren’t roaring overhead, I’d hear a “No, thank you” as they passed by. They weren’t interested in hearing the unpleasant things we had to say, the gentle reminders that the bright and shiny military wooing them with its seemingly bottomless budget is comprised of actual human people who are not, shockingly, invincible. But why should they listen? Why should they care? After all, they have the option of “no, thank you.”
The problem of American apathy, particularly toward ongoing U.S. overseas military involvement and its consequences, has not always existed. During all American wars before 1973, nearly the entire population rallied to support or decry conflicts as they saw fit. Everyone had an opinion about wars, and everyone felt their effects – because everyone was involved. Every American male over the age of 18 was eligible to be drafted into the military, and could be called upon at any time. There were exemptions – primarily for college students, men with physical handicaps and conscientious objectors – but the majority of American males were mandated to serve in the military when called. Those who couldn’t fight overseas were asked to serve their country in other ways – through buying war bonds, for example, or donating nylon hose to be used for making parachutes. This being the case, every single American was not only well aware that their nation was at war, but experienced it either first- or secondhand. As New York Times blogger Mike Haynie wrote, “Many of us [baby boomers] came of age under the watchful guidance of so many from the last ‘greatest generation,’ veterans supported by citizens and communities that intimately understood the role that those veterans had played in our national defense. That same understanding doesn’t exist today. A recent study from Pew Research reports that a majority of Americans indicate that 10 years at war has had little to no impact on their daily lives.”
This is a troubling disconnection – not only from war, but also from servicemembers themselves. New York Times writer Sabrina Tavernise called today’s military “far less connected to the rest of society, a condition that some academics have said might not bode well for the future of military-civilian relations (the military is run by civilians). Others have warned that less connection between the military and the rest of society could lead to less-informed decisions about whether to go to war, because conflicts and the people who fight them are not part of most people’s everyday lives.” Most Americans, it appears, demand military action while refusing to become acquainted with the sacrifice that action requires.
Because war has had such a low impact on 90% of Americans, they’ve had no need to engage with it. An October Atlantic article reported, “[Since] the United States has been at war in Afghanistan … More than 2,000 Americans have been killed, many thousands have been injured, and $574 billion has been spent. And yet, according to Frank Newport, the editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, when Americans are asked to name the most important issue facing the country, less than one percent says ‘Afghanistan.’ ” The article was attempting to explain the reasons that the two U.S. presidential candidates rarely mention the longest war in American military history, and the long and short of the matter was that the candidates “read the polls and … it’s not a high-priority issue for the public.” General Stanley McChrystal, former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, asserted the same point this year when he said, “We’ve never fought an extended war with an all-volunteer military [in the United States before]. So what it means is you’ve got a very small population that you’re going to and you’re going to it over and over again,” he said. “Because it’s less than one percent of the population… people are very supportive but they don’t have the same connection to it.” When the presidential candidates claim, during a debate, that the war in Afghanistan is going just fine, even the debate’s moderator neglects to challenge them before moving on to the next topic. American voters remain largely unconcerned with the war, and thus incapable of drawing educated conclusions about its effects.
Americans are equally oblivious – or perhaps are turning a blind eye – to one of the most alarming developments to be born of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unbeknownst to them, the psychological toll on servicemembers themselves, compounded by repeated deployments, is causing an epidemic rate of veteran suicides – according to TIME Magazine, veterans account for 20% of U.S. suicides. In more stark terms, that’s nearly one suicide per day. The article, which asks, “Why Can’t the Army Win the War On Suicide?”, goes on to report that more U.S. Army personnel have died by suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died fighting there. The rate jumped 80% from 2004 to 2008, and while it leveled off in 2010 and 2011, it has leapt 18% this year. In addition, 20-50% of soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and one in three women in the Army have been the victims of military sexual trauma. Of course, this is only what’s been reported over the past few years – until 2009, the military didn’t keep such records, and the American people didn’t demand them. They were content to remain blissfully unaware at best and unconsciously aggressive at worst, going so far as to call for further military intervention in other parts of the world, ignoring the inevitable results.
The statistics are grim, although it seems they’re not grim enough for the American public to care. This has a great deal to do with the fact that in 2012, only 10% of American adults are veterans. Fewer than 1% are currently serving in the military – a sharp decline from the 9% of the population who served during World War II – and the percentage has decreased steadily every year since then, with the exception of a small increase during the Vietnam War .
In other words, the American people have less and less of a reason each year to pay attention to the human cost of war, and the trend threatens to continue unless drastic action is taken. United States citizens are uninformed, unaware, and unconscious of the damage their nation incurs, even of the damage to their own troops. They must be forced to at least acknowledge, if not accept, the consequences of America’s expensive and deadly self-awarded role of World Police. They need a constant, unavoidable reminder of the traumatic effects of U.S. invasion and occupation. They need to be compelled to experience this trauma for themselves, and they need to pay attention to the trauma being inflicted upon others. They need the draft.
That’s right, I said it: an extremely effective solution to the problem of American apathy is the mandatory conscription of American adults into the U.S. military. Would a draft be popular? Of course not. After all, that’s why it was ended in 1973 – as George Q. Flynn writes, “Richard Nixon ended the draft, not because of the inevitability of strategic or economic changes or theories of modernization, but because an all-volunteer force made his election more likely.” But the unpopularity of the draft would be the very thing that would catalyze the American public into once again paying attention, not only to the status of U.S. military involvement overseas, but to the condition of American veterans returning from those conflicts – just as it did during the Vietnam War. McChrystal summed this point up nicely June 29: “I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population. I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”
A draft would reduce the increasingly high number of military suicides by creating a vast pool from which to draw American troops, thus limiting the number of combat deployments required of the current fighting force. According to McChrystal, Army reservists have trouble maintaining careers and families following multiple deployments. He takes special note of their “frighteningly high” rate of suicide: according to an October 19 Department of Defense press release, in 2012 alone there had then been 146 “potential” – meaning confirmed and unconfirmed – active-duty suicides, and 101 potential suicides in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. In 2011, potential suicides numbered 165 active-duty soldiers and 118 in the reserve component. Again, these statistics do not include servicemembers in other branches of the military, nor do they include veterans who have separated from the military. McChrystal asserted,”The reserve structure is designed for major war, you fight and then you stop, but what we’ve done instead is gone back over and over to the same people … We’re going to have to relook the whole model because I don’t think we can do this again.”
Currently, most troops deploy to Afghanistan multiple times, often for tours of a year or more, with only about a year in between for recovery from combat-related psychological and physical trauma. This was also the case in Iraq, where, during the 2007-2008 troop surge, most soldiers were deployed for 15 consecutive months. Long tours of duty were also common for veterans of previous wars, but with a major difference: once troops returned home, they were home for good. There was no threat of being forced to return to combat, much less to return every-other year. This allowed them the opportunity for uninterrupted treatment for physical and mental trauma – an opportunity not enjoyed by the present-day all-volunteer force, who are frequently compelled by their commanders to stop any such treatment in order to deploy with their units. Base commanders often override or ignore doctors’ diagnoses and recommendations in the interest of maintaining their quota of “deployable” troops. This results in an increasingly traumatized fighting force, many of whom face reprisal from their units and/or stigmatization as weak or lazy when they seek help, increasing any existing post-traumatic stress, depression and suicidal tendencies. This practice of “recycling” troops would probably be discontinued if a draft were reinstated, but if it weren’t, the result would likely be a massive public outcry from a nation chock-full of potential soldiers. Those who weren’t qualified for combat would find plenty of civil service positions waiting for them – meaningful, productive employment in the service of their favorite nation.
When their deployments finally end, troops return to an environment which has become foreign to them, to spouses and children who have grown accustomed to living without them (that is, if their spouses haven’t left them during the course of the deployment, as many do), and to an American public whose robotic “Thank you for your service” largely excludes any understanding of what that service actually entails, because they’re not affected by it. Troops return to stateside duty stations where their superiors discourage them, implicitly and explicitly, from seeking medical or psychological treatment. They return to fellow Americans who have no clue that this is the case, even though these troops go home to towns and families in every region of the United States.
This lack of awareness and concern on the part of these troops’ fellow citizens, for whose “freedom” they have ostensibly been fighting, has led to the psychological and subsequently physical destruction of thousands of servicemembers. It has led to a nation of uninformed voters, many of whom are already cluelessly cheering the idea of a future military campaign in Iran. It has led to a population of citizens who, upon hearing their veterans’ desperate pleas for help, crane their necks instead toward Blue Angels that zoom through the sky. Beneath the deafening roar of the military jets, I can see their mouths form the all-too-familiar shapes of a terse, “no, thank you,” before they move on with their lives, unconcerned by the much quieter reality of all those who never will have the chance to do the same.
1. Mike Haynie, “How to incentivize Military Service: Set a Good Example with Veterans,” New York Times blog, July 23, 2012, http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/how-to-incentivize-military-service-set-a-good-example-with-veterans/?ref=draftandrecruitmentmilitary.
2. Sabrina Tavernise, “As Fewer Americans Serve, Growing Gap Is Found Between Civilians and Military,” New York Times, Nov. 24, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/25/us/civilian-military-gap-grows-as-fewer-americans-serve.html.
3. Heather Maher, “The U.S. Presidential Campaign’s Unspoken Rule: Don’t Mention the War,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/the-us-presidential-campaigns-unspoken-rule-dont-mention-the-war/263671/.
4. Nancy Gibbs and Mark Thompson, “Why Can’t the Army Win The War On Suicide?” TIME Magazine, July 23, 2012, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2119337,00.html.
5. Josh Rogin, “McChrystal: Time to bring back the draft,” Foreign Policy Magazine, July 23, 2012, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/07/03/mcchrystal_time_to_bring_back_the_draft.
6. George Q. Flynn, The Draft, 1943-1970 (University of Kansas Press, 1993), 261.