In 2014, I shared the story of an encounter I had on an airplane with a United States military veteran named Tim. He had overheard a fellow passenger suggest that the challenges facing some veterans after 9/11 were “fake news” and unlike during the Vietnam era. “America supports its veterans,” the woman said. Tim then shared his experience after serving in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. He tried college, but it never stuck. He was battling with Veterans Affairs, and he was unable to find a job.
But then Tim said something that gave me goosebumps. “Worse than all that, now at home, I feel anonymous,” he told told us. Home among the very people who sent him to fight and kill our enemies, Tim feels invisible. For years, our elected leaders have debated strategies to end our wars after 9/11. However, only a brave few have acknowledged that until the costs and consequences of war are equitably shared by all Americans, our wars will drag on, military conflict will remain too painless a pursuit, and the experiment of an all volunteer military will fail us as a nation.
Three truths inform this proposition. First, our wars after 9/11 are not initially funded, at least in part, by taxpayers. Instead, the $5 trillion and growing cost has been largely paid on credit. Second, an exceedingly small number of Americans have directly shouldered the burden, and those who do serve are increasingly not representative of the citizenry. Finally, the assumption we have a ready pool of volunteers is becoming a myth. An estimated 70 percent of American youth are ineligible to volunteer, and the willingness of high school students to consider military service is at a record low. This could explain why the United States Army missed its recruiting goals this year for the first time since 2005.
Most agree that a military composed entirely of volunteers is superior to a conscripted force. However, many also acknowledge that this type of system is beginning to show cracks. Some of those cracks stem from fielding military members separate and apart from those who benefit from a safe and prosperous nation. The worst fears of those who architected the all volunteer military included a concern that because only “some” would shoulder the burdens of war, then war as an instrument of foreign policy would become too easy. They also feared that when those who fight come home, they would be cast as a government problem.
More than four decades and several wars later, I would describe these fears as prophetic. Since 1973, the United States has used military force on more than 220 occasions. Alternatively, in the 45 years prior when a draft was the law of the land, the United States leveraged military force as an instrument of foreign policy on just 24 occasions. Some of this contrast can rightfully be attributed to an complex global security situation, but it is also likely true that when you do not have to pay the bill, and when it is not your child being compelled to fight our battles, war is too easy.
Why do those who volunteer come home and cite lack of connection to civilian society? It is because after 17 years of war, we have discounted the foundational assumption sustaining the all volunteer force that those who benefit from the military service of others incur a moral obligation to those who serve the cause of defending our nation. Today, while a laudable segment of Americans remain committed to the concerns of veterans, the majority is not. Last year, less than 1 percent of charitable contributions in the United States went to veterans organizations. By comparison, Americans gave to animal welfare charities at five times that level. Most Americans are against reinstating the draft. Consequently, it is time to have a conversation focused on mechanisms to equitably share the burden of current and future wars with all members of our society.
I can offer a likely provocative start to that conversation. Congress should enact law requiring companies generating revenue from federal defense contracts to make annual philanthropic contributions to organizations that serve veterans and their families, equal to 1 percent of total operating profit generated from those contracts. Congress should enact law requiring colleges to make financial aid available to veterans, equal to 1 percent of the federal funding received annually by each institution. Those colleges must also admit students connected to the military, equal to or exceeding 1 percent of the total student population. Furthermore, Congress should enact law requiring all households to pay an annual military tax of $15. This would fund a national veterans trust designated to public and private programs serving the needs of military families.
After 17 years in Afghanistan, our elected leaders must demonstrate the courage to introduce policy requiring all Americans to shoulder the costs and consequences of war. In the absence of courage, war as a tool for diplomacy will remain far too easy a pursuit, our battles will drag on without end in sight, and veterans like Tim will remain anonymous.
Michael Haynie is a veteran of the United States Air Force, vice chancellor of Syracuse University, and executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. The views expressed in this column are his alone.