In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “The Tragedy of the American Military,” author James Fallows discusses, among other topics, the “reverent but disengaged attitude [of the American public] toward the military.” Fallows postulates that this is largely the result of a demographic change, both in the numbers of those who have served in uniform and the percentage of our citizenry with close military ties. If Fallows’ assertion has any validity, and I think it does, then the Memorial Day holiday will become more important with each passing year.
American involvement in World War II saw a level of military participation unsurpassed, before or since. Of those who were service eligible (largely young men, but also some young women), 10 percent of the population saw service in that war, most overseas. Nearly every citizen of the United States either served in the military or had a close family member serving. Among baby boomers, those born in the aftermath of the war, 75 percent of Americans had an immediate family member who had served. The “Greatest Generation” was created, in no small part, based on the unity of focus and sacrifice surrounding military service.
By contrast, less than 1 percent of those eligible to serve in uniform today currently do so. Fallows estimates that even less than that, about three-quarters of 1 percent, has actually seen combat in Iraq or Afghanista. More distressingly, among millenials, only about 1 in 3 has a close family member or friend who is serving or has served in the post-9/11 military.
What, you may ask, is the big deal about civil-military disengagement? I’ve been to the ballpark, you may say; I’ve seen them honor the troops I’ve watched someone give up a first-class seat to a service member in uniform. America loves its military! From Fallows’ point of view, and mine, that unchecked love is exactly the problem. Increasingly, Americans have developed a cult of hero worship of those in the military; they love those in uniform, but they have no true understanding of those service members or the military in which they serve.
For me, as an American Jewish service member, I find it especially disheartening that perhaps no segment of the population is more disconnected from our military than our own Jewish community. Consider that, during World War II, more than 500,000 Jews served in the American military. Today, the Jewish Chaplains’ council estimates that number to be less than 10,000, with some estimates cutting that number again by half. My own anecdotal experiences, visiting Rhode Island synagogues, has shown an almost total absence of service members from our religious institutions. Sure, I have conversed with the occasional veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but younger Jews simply do not serve in uniform the way they once did.
One of the least heralded but most important elements of American society is civilian control of the military. A disengaged, uninformed society, however, cannot exercise educated and appropriate control over its military services. As Jews, we pride ourselves on being the thinkers and leaders within our communities, yet how can we continue in this role if we become increasingly disconnected from those who serve?
Not all service members want to talk about their service. Even those who wish to engage in conversations about service do value their own privacy. If you see me in uniform on an airplane, returning from a long trip, I will appreciate your gratitude, but I am unlikely to want to engage in long political or psychological discourse. Luckily, our calendars do have a time set aside for just that sort of conversation: Memorial Day.
The future importance of the Memorial Day holiday, therefore, cannot be overemphasized. As our military grows smaller, our statistical opportunities for meaningful interactions with service members will naturally fall. Short of a major war in our future, the trend of civil-military disengagement is unlikely to reverse. Yet events like Memorial Day celebrations give us a chance to mitigate the risks that such disengagement presents.
It is one of the few opportunities to directly engage with those who serve or have served. It’s no coincidence that the Navy and Marine Corps use Memorial Day to kick off events throughout the country, including New York’s Fleet Week and our own Rhode Island Navy Week. So if you see a service member or veteran this Memorial Day weekend, take advantage of the opportunity. Talk to that service member, get to know their story and make it a goal to become reengaged with your military.
As a citizen of a nation with an all-volunteer military force, you have no requirement to serve in the military. Yet I offer that you do have an obligation to understand those who choose military service and the institution that they support. Use Memorial Day as not just a reminder of the sacrifices of those who served, but as a reminder to renew that obligation.
PETE ZUBOF is a native of Richmond, Virginia. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland and has a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island. He’s a pilot in the United States Navy and currently on the staff of the Naval War College. Pete is also the Jewish lay-leader for Naval Station Newport. Pete blogs regularly for 401j. He resides in Jamestown with his wife, Morgan, their son, Logan and dog Cider.