01/04/2012 - This year marks the 10th anniversary of the longest period of sustained warfare in United States history, and never before has the nation waged war with so small a percentage of the population carrying the fight.
The Pew Research Center explored some questions arising from these historic milestones, summed up in the resulting report’s title, The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era. With data from a survey of both groups, the report paints a portrait of the rewards and burdens of serving in an all-volunteer military in recent years, and how well the general public understands the military experience.
Both 84 percent of the veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001 and 71 percent of the general public said civilians do not understand the problems faced by members of the military and their families, the survey found. While recognizing the sacrifices by men and women in uniform and their families, 70 percent of the public consider them “just part of being in the military.”
This gap in understanding has concerned the nation’s military leaders for some time. “I fear they do not know us,” Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of civilians during a speech at West Point’s graduation ceremony this year. “I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.”
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been fought by an all-volunteer military that at any given time has represented about one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. At the height of World War II, the comparable number was nearly 9 percent, and that difference goes a long way in explaining the gap in attitudes between the military and civilians, said Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Rick Atkinson, who led a panel discussion on the survey’s findings when they were released.
During World War II, “almost everyone had someone they love in harm’s way,” Atkinson said. Today, “relatively few have skin in the game.”
The Pew analysis found that the public deeply appreciates the military: More than 9 in 10 people expressed pride in America’s fighting men and women, and confidence in the military is at its highest point in decades. Yet 45 percent said neither of the wars has been worth the cost, and only a quarter said they follow news of the conflicts closely.
Despite their sacrifices, 96 percent of veterans who served in the past decade are proud of their service, and 74 percent said their military experience has helped them get along in life, the survey said. But veterans also report having difficulty readjusting to civilian life at far higher rates than those serving in previous conflicts.
The Military-Civilian Gap also compares the views of civilians and veterans on several other issues, including the best way to fight terrorism, the desirability of a military draft and the nature of America’s place in the world. The full report can be read at www.pewresearch.org, the Pew Research Center’s Web site. The center conducts authoritative analysis of the issues, trends and attitudes shaping the world but does not advocate policy positions.
The report’s authors quoted Mullen’s remarks at West Point about the differences in views between service members and the public and wrote, “We hope this report will help to bridge some of these gaps in understanding.”