How many Americans think about the war in Afghanistan regularly? The daily realities of war are inescapable for military members and their families, but the rest are largely able to stay disconnected from it. The issues of foreign policy and war dropped off the radar entirely for most Americans before the 2012 election.
About 68,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in Afghanistan, down from the peak of 101,000 (not to mention the those who were in Iraq). Without a draft, WWII-style war bond campaigns, or highly visible war industry, most Americans need to be reminded that we’re at war. Unlike veterans and military families, civilians not directly connected to the military have a kind of privilege to forget the conflict in their daily lives. The result is a growing chasm between U.S. civilians and the Armed Forces.
In 2011, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about their connections to the military and found a considerable gap: “Never has the U.S. public been so separate, so removed, so isolated from the people it pays to protect it.” The vast majority of those over 50 had an immediate family member who had served (mostly due to WWII and Vietnam). Of those 30-49 years old, 57% had someone in their immediate family serve. Those between 18-29 are the most disconnected from war; only 33% have a close family member with military experience:
This leads to differences in views about the military. Those from military families are more likely to believe that civilians do not understand what they go through, that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world,” and that they are “more patriotic than most people in the country.” They’re also more likely to recommend the armed forces to a young person — though only about half would do so:
My own research on the experiences of military families during deployment supports the Pew findings. And patterns in who joins the armed forces may lead to an increased gap. Those with veterans in their family are more likely to join the military; 79% of young veterans, compared to 61% of the public, have family members who served. As fewer Americans have relatives who were in the military, making them less likely to join themselves, insulation from the military grows.
This bumper sticker reflects this gap between military families and everyone else. It draws a distinction between “my” service member and “your” freedom, while seeming to assume a lack of support from non-military Americans:
Military families believe that others don’t understand what they go through during deployment. As one mother told me, “We understand why we try to be strong but automatically cry when we see the foot powder display at Wal-Mart.” Or as an Iraq war veteran explained to Time,
The gap between the military and everybody else is getting worse because people don’t know–and don’t want to know–what you’ve been through…There are no bond drives. There are no tax hikes. There are no food drives or rubber drives … It’s hard not to think of my war as a bizarre camping trip that no one else went on.
Veterans return to a country where very few understand what they have been through, which makes reentry into civilian life more difficult — just one of the consequences of having a small segment of the country assume the burdens of war.
Wendy Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University whose specialty includes the intersection of gender, war, and the media.