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July 4, 2013

A Veteran’s Perspective on Independence Day: 2.5 million – A compelling number in 1776, but enough for today?

A Veteran’s Perspective on Independence Day: 2.5 million – A compelling number in 1776, but enough for today?


Written By: Colonel (Ret.) James D. McDonough, Jr.

This year, think about this when celebrating Independence Day, our nation’s birthday: when America’s original 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence gathered, there were some 2.5 million people living in the newly independent nation of the United States of America. Today, that same number – 2.5 million – represents the tiny fraction of our population (now numbering some 316 million) who has served their country actively in the armed forces since September 11, 2001.

When held in comparison to all previous armed conflicts involving the United States of America, less than one percent of our citizens are now engaged in the direct “business” of defending their country. We have seemingly arrived at a new low for those willing to serve their country. Or have we?

Some may argue that 2.5 million Americans under organized arms is enough, that with the advent of an all-volunteer force, our nation can indeed “afford” to not be a population, a nation, under arms any longer. We have, after all, demonstrated as much (rather effectively) for the past twelve years. Our military has shown that it is possible to defend a nation, even after being attacked in the horrific manner in which we were on September 11, 2001, by employing relatively few individuals – 2.5 million to be exact – along the way.

But how do you calculate what is “enough” when it comes to defending a nation? The question has become even more important in light of recent reports about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) efforts to gather metadata from phone calls and emails of American citizens to help keep us safe from further attack. While times have indeed changed, defining the value of our national defense remains and it seems most Americans have concluded we can never have enough when it comes to our defense.

In 1776, “enough” meant becoming a literal population under arms. During World War II, “enough” seemed to many to be the same but with a twist; if you weren’t fighting, you were fixing, building or even saving to support those who were pulling the nation’s collective trigger.  Korea, my father’s war, became something slightly less engaged. It didn’t become the “Forgotten War” without popular sentiment being applied first. My uncle’s war, Vietnam, became the tipping point where we as a nation treated both war and warrior with great disdain, hoping to forget both, as many would say. Fast forward to today and to my war, and we see that America’s views about those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq seem altogether different than the way the nation supported its Vietnam veterans. Did our collective guilt over that entire experience pave the way for a new calculation of what “enough” national defense looks like?

Can enough today best be defined by those who directly engage in armed conflict and by the extent to which the rest support them? If so, maybe 2.5 million Americans under organized arms is enough when combined with a supportive populace. Even Colonel Harry Summers, author of On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, would find favor with that math.

The history of defending our nation’s freedom has certainly been marked by more than a couple of high and low water marks. On this Independence Day, let’s agree that our best highs are achieved when we combine individual and voluntary service in America’s armed forces with a population – a nation – that fully supports them and never forgets that it remembered to do so in the first place.

Happy birthday, America.

Colonel (Retired) Jim McDonough is the Senior Director for Community Engagement and Innovation at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF). He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and resides in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. with his family.


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