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Thursday, June 30, 2005

We're not raising kids to be war heroes

James P. Pinkerton writes in Newsday about decreasing tolerance in the U.S. for casualties.:

During the Civil War, Union forces lost 360,000 men, out of a population of 22 million. Which is to say, almost 2 percent of the entire Northern population was killed in four years. Yet President Abraham Lincoln hung on to his support and was re-elected by a landslide in 1864. Of course, public opinion polling and television didn't exist back then. But there's another factor, too: big families. In 1860, more than half the population of the U.S. was under 19. It's a cold fact that if there are a lot of kids around the household, it's easier to give some over to war. But the long-term trend toward smaller families has undercut this demographic 'surplus.' That's the underlying reason Americans did not 'hold firm' in Vietnam, and why they do not seem to be holding firm in Iraq. Then and now, American forces were not in danger of losing on the battlefront. But the home front was, and is, a different story. The first Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam in 1957. By the summer of 1965, total KIAs in Vietnam reached the same level that they are in Iraq today. Yet four decades ago, support for the war stayed stronger longer. A majority of Americans didn't say Vietnam wasn't worth fighting for until August 1968, by which time some 30,000 American soldiers had been killed. So while Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War was one-hundredth as costly as Lincoln's Civil War, on a relative basis - the 36th president, unlike the 16th president, was thwarted in his bid for re-election. The percentage of children in the country was a key factor in these shifting war-presidency fortunes. By 1965, the share of under-19-year-olds had fallen sharply, to 37 percent. So in 'Nam, each combat fatality - magnified, of course, by the media - was felt more strongly. Today, the under-19 percentage is down to 27. Families that once had five or six kids now have a couple at most. Poll numbers on Iraq - and plummeting enlistment rates - show the impact of demography on the polity. These long-term trends, and their political implications, were evident to one farsighted thinker more than a decade ago. In 1994, Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., surveyed the U.S. experience in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia and concluded, in a Foreign Affairs article, that America had entered its 'post-heroic' era, in which the public would have a permanently low tolerance for casualties.
I am not sure his analysis is correct as to the cause here. It seems reasonable to me that at least a part, if not most of this decreasing tolerance for casualties is not because we have smaller families, but because we have fewer non-war related deaths. Childhood and young adult death is quite rare now, especially if one looks at 'acts of God' as opposed to things like car wrecks where the victim may often be at fault. Since we are less accustomed to youthful death now, death in war seems proportionately worse. This is also of course magnified by mass media and our becoming accustomed to feeling everyone else's pain (how else does one explain the massive coverage of a single missing person.) However, I think there may be a counter effect here. As our lives have become softer, we have also embraced finding ways to challenge, and even threaten ourselves. Extreme sports are one manifestation of this. Based on some of the accounts in Generation Kill for many the military offers this same sort of thrill and adventure. Also based upon that book, these soldiers are perhaps the deadliest ever produced. There has long been speculation on whether the effect of lifespan increases will promote risk taking or excessive caution. I think that the risk taking option is more likely as there is a certain need to be exposed to danger at times to feel alive. How these factors will finally play out in this, and future wars, will be interesting.


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