Written By: Mike Haynie, IVMF Executive Director and Founder
I started my day in a way that has become all too familiar – in a hotel lounge. It was crowded with people scrambling for their free muffin and coffee, just like me. There was a TV in the lounge, but you couldn’t hear it over the buzz of people talking about their plans to visit the tourist sites in the town that I was just passing through. I wanted to hear the TV.
I wanted to hear the TV because there was a news story being broadcast about a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan. Five Americans were killed. This is important stuff. Why are people talking over the TV? I looked around the lounge, and nobody else even glanced up at news. I must have looked annoyed, because the waitress came over and asked if my food was OK. The food was fine, but what happened next gave me heartburn.
The story on the television transitioned from the tragic event in Afghanistan that cost five American lives, to a story about ABC’s reality TV show “The Bachelor.” Ratings were up from last year – 14% among adults 18-49 as compared to season #16’s final episode. This was great news for Bachelor fans.
Why did this news give me heartburn? It’s certainly not because I have any interest in knowing if “The Bachelor” found love, or if the show would return next year. I was floored because only now did some of the people in the lounge stop their conversations, and pay attention to the TV. They all wanted to hear the “news.” I wanted to scream.
For several years, voices in the veterans and military community have described the danger inherent in what has been termed the military-civilian divide – that is, a consequence of the all-volunteer military where our nation’s wars and their impact become distant and abstract to the class of citizens who deferred the nation’s defense to others. Mine has been one of those voices. In editorials and speeches I’ve called for efforts positioned to foster increasing awareness of the issues and challenges facing our nation’s veterans and military families, directed at those who have not served in uniform.
As I sat in that lounge and watched my fellow travelers demonstrate indifference to a news story about the loss of life in Afghanistan – and in turn demonstrate a real and personal investment in a reality television program – it occurred to me how foolish and misguided my efforts have been. Awareness for its own sake is not enough to motivate action. Action comes only when awareness of an opportunity to act accompanies motivated self-interest for action. It’s Psychology 101.
Ask yourself, why do such a large number care how many Americans tuned in to learn who the Bachelor picked to be his one and only? To answer this question you don’t need to look any further than the countless blogs and online forums that have been created to follow the drama, or to watch the emotional YouTube videos that some Bachelor fans have recorded since the season finale. In these videos Bachelor fans, some fighting back tears, wonder out loud: Will they get married? Will love last? People care because the outcome could have consequences for something that impacts them directly; that is, the “buzz” on the internet is that the long-running program was in jeopardy of being cancelled, if this season wasn’t a rating hit. People care because they have skin in the game – they want their favorite show to continue.
Last summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival, General Stanley McChrystal, the former senior commander in Afghanistan, said “I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population…I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”
When General McChrystal made these remarks, he became one of the first senior military leaders of his generation to speak publically and specifically about a return to the draft. Undoubtedly, he knew that his remarks would be controversial, and they were – for a few brief days. Then they were forgotten.
There are many advantages to the all-volunteer force, and those have been widely acknowledged by policy-makers and military leaders. However, as General McChrystal rightly points out, the all-volunteer model has an inherent flaw; that is, it does not naturally cultivate engaged citizenship behaviors on the part of those who do not volunteer.
As we consider the future of the all-volunteer military, public policy discussions should focus on steps positioned to cultivate a motivated self-interest among those who don’t volunteer for military service, to support the post-service life course of those who do. While PSAs and media campaigns designed to educate the masses about the challenges now facing our veterans and military families are honorable and well-intended, I firmly believe that such efforts are inherently limited with regard to the potential for substantive effect.
We need to stop talking in the abstract about a moral obligation to support our veterans, and instead enact public policy that makes it the duty of all Americans to shoulder the responsibility of helping our veterans realize their full potential as individuals, and as citizens. Without broad-based and enduring engagement on the part of the nation’s citizenry in the complex challenges facing many of those serve the nation during war, too many of our veterans will fall through the cracks. As President Calvin Coolidge once said, “A nation who forgets its defenders, will itself be forgotten.”