Column – Military service is declining, and America is worse for it

Published 5:22 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2024

A rather humorous encounter with Medicare a week or so ago reminded me of the growing absence of shared life experiences that is dividing us.

A Medicare employee asked me to sign, date and record the time on a form that involved the delivery of medical treatment. She specified that military time should be used, and offered to tell me what it was if I didn’t know. I knew. I recorded the time as 1727 and handed the form back to her.

She then asked me to add “p.m.” after the time.

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Why the heck would I do that, I asked, since 1727 already denotes p.m. That’s like saying a boat is traveling at 10 knots per hour. It’s simply wrong to do so.

She pleasantly explained that the question had come up in the past since the time format is confusing to many people. 

It was a silly situation, but I added the p.m. and smiled. Most people today have never encountered much of anything military, certainly not as a member of the armed forces. And that thought brought me back to a concern of longstanding. As the percentage of Americans who have served in the military declines — and it is doing so rapidly — one of the important shared experiences that have traditionally defined American citizenship is also declining.

Four decades ago, 18% of all Americans were serving or had served in one of the military branches. In 2022, it was 6% — a two-thirds decline. Virginia has the third-highest penetration of veterans per capita of any state, but you can see the change even here. Just go to one of our military band concerts. When the tribute to veterans is played, there are fewer standing each year. 

The change has had an enormous impact on American society, to say nothing of the changes it’s made in the military. I can’t help but feel that the growing gap between those who understand national service and those who don’t is contributing to the distrust and, tragically, the outright contempt that exists between many of us today.

The reasons for the decline include, thank God, the lack of a major war since Vietnam. The engagements in which the U.S. has been involved since that fateful conflict have simply required fewer combatants. What has been required of combatants has been no less difficult, traumatic and, all too often, catastrophic than were the effects on Vietnam veterans. It just hasn’t involved such a large cross-section of the population. And that has increased the lack of understanding and sense of separation.

The harm that Vietnam did to the American psyche will last well into the future. It was clearly one of the origins of the divisions that penetrate all corners of our nation today. 

I submit, though, that the clamor for and ultimate decision to eliminate the draft back then has itself contributed to cultural misunderstanding and, ultimately, societal anger. 

It was never the military’s role to be the paddle that stirred the mixing pot of America, but in fact nobody has ever done it better, and the draft ensured that the ingredients would be brought together.

During the Vietnam War, a recruit company could have high school dropouts, high school graduates, college graduates and postgraduates. A full racial and ethnic mix was naturally a part.

People who had grown up in privileged conditions sweated right alongside those who had grown up street savvy in a large city. People with all manner of attitudes, including racist beliefs learned from birth, ran smack dab into the reality of an integrated society and learned from it.

There were problems, of course, but the military had an uncanny way of leveling out differences, at least to a degree, and tolerance, at least, generally resulted. In many instances, lifelong friendships developed where least expected.

Then, the draft ended, and we went to an all-volunteer professional military. And God bless those who have stepped up to the country’s call. Their service has been incredible and we’ll forever be in their debt.

But gone is that shared experience that 18% of the country’s population shared back then, and it’s hurting.

The draft is a thing of the past. If we have a war requiring a draft in the future, it might well be a war that heralds the end of civilization. Nobody wants that. But there are many of us today — I happen to be one — who believe that universal service of some kind is vital if our nation’s ability to live with itself is to continue. 

Military service would certainly be included in the options, but only as an option. Service to society, working alongside people with vastly different backgrounds, is the key. It makes personal contact mandatory, and a closer look at our American brothers and sisters inevitable. Nor is there any lack of work to be done, here and abroad. 

Universal service isn’t a citizenship class. It’s an apprenticeship in being an effective member of society. It would not be a panacea for our problems, but it should be looked at closely. And Lord knows there’s plenty of work to keep young people busy for a couple of years.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is