I’ve long been struck by one strange aspect of the most recent part of the American Century: just how demobilized this country has been in the midst of distant wars that have morphed and spread for almost 17 years. I was born in July 1944 into a fully mobilized country fighting World War II in Europe and the Pacific. Pearl Harbor aside, actual war was then a distant reality for most Americans, but there was no question that this nation was at war (as were both my parents: my father in the U.S. Army Air Forces, as it was then called, and my mother in the war effort at home). War bonds, Victory Gardens, Rosie the Riveter — mobilization for war was a fact of life, no matter where you were.
The same was true for another era of war in my lifetime: the Vietnam years. With up to half a million troops deployed, along with significant parts of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, to fight peasant rebels thousands of miles from home, war-making couldn’t have been more distant. Yet from the mid-1960s into the early 1970s, significant parts of this country were once again mobilized, even if in a movement against that war. The streets were regularly filled with protesters. In Congress, opposition was commonplace. In the military, too, there were powerful antiwar currents and, by the last years of that war, the antiwar movement itself would be led by Vietnam veterans.
That was, of course, just how a democratic country, a nation “of the people,” was supposed to respond to the wars its leaders chose to fight. Even if in quite different ways, both World War II and Vietnam were people’s wars fought by draft armies and civilians who felt the call to service in some essential fashion. That’s what makes the twenty-first-century version of American war so eerily different. The one thing it hasn’t been is a call to service of any sort. Quite the opposite. It’s been fought by an all-volunteer military, a force remarkably isolated from the rest of the country that today’s author, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, has in the past compared to a foreign legion.
That military and the demobilized public that goes with it have been a long time coming — since, in fact, the moment in 1973 when President Richard Nixon abolished the draft in hopes of eliminating the very idea of antiwar protest. Our wars are now not only fought in distant lands, but at least in part by a secretive military of 70,000, the Special Operations forces cocooned inside the regular military. Such conflicts are also overseen by an ascendant national security state enswathed in a penumbra of secrecy. Today, America’s wars never end either in victory or defeat. They just go on and on. So they and that demobilized public might be thought of as part of the new definition of the American way of life and, as Astore so pungently points out, the result is a country that your parents and mine wouldn’t have recognized.