To End America’s Longest War, Connect All Americans to Costs and Consequences

This article was shared last year on October 15, 2018 but we determined it was worth sharing today to highlight the longest continuing conflict for our nation. The war in Afghanistan started 18 years ago today on October 7th, 2001. 

A few years ago, I shared publicly the story of an encounter I had on an airplane with a young veteran named Tim. Tim was a few months out of the Marine Corps, and shortly after we took our seats, he overheard the women next to me assert that many of challenges facing the current generation of veterans – unemployment, suicide, and the like – were ‘fake news.’

This “isn’t like Vietnam,” she said. “America supports our veterans.”

In response, Tim described to me his experience after leaving the Marine Corps. He tried college, but didn’t feel like he belonged, so he dropped out after one semester. Tim was struggling to get adequate care from the VA, and as a result he couldn’t keep a job. However, it was what he said next that gave me goosebumps.

Tim said, ‘Mike, worse than all that, now that I’m home from Afghanistan and out of the military, I feel anonymous.’ His words cut right through me. Now home, among the very people who sent him to war, Tim feels anonymous.

Fast forward to 2018, and America is still fighting Tim’s war. In fact, this year marks two notable milestones in the context of this nation’s longest sustained period of military conflict.

September 12th of 2018 marked the first day a child born after 9/11 could enlist in the U.S. military, and join the ranks of those who have shouldered the burden of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, it was 45 years ago this year – largely in response to the war in Vietnam – that the United States abandoned the draft in favor of an all-volunteer military. Not only does America’s longest war now span generations, it also represents the first multi-generational test of a military force composed entirely of volunteers.

In recent years, politicians, pundits, and policy experts have devoted energy and air time to the subject of how best to end our post-9/11 wars. While countless military strategies have been proposed, and some enacted, the strategy we’ve yet to meaningfully discuss relates to policy that would meaningfully connect the human and economic consequences of war, to all of American society. Without the courage to have this conversation, this nation’s post-9/11 wars will drag on, politicians will increasingly leverage military conflict as an instrument of foreign policy, and America’s 45-year experiment with an all-volunteer military will fail.

Three important truths inform this proposition.

First, our post-9/11 wars are the first in American history that have not been funded, at least in part, by the American taxpayer. There has been no war tax, war bond, or any direct financial sacrifice of the American people tied to the war effort. Instead, the bill for our post-9/11 wars – now approaching $5-trillon – has been largely paid on ‘credit.’

Second, an exceedingly small number of American citizens have directly shouldered the burden of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Importantly, while this small proportion of Americans is exceptionally diverse as a population, they are at the same time increasingly not representative of the citizenry as a whole.

Finally, sustaining an all-volunteer military assumes a ready, willing, and eligible pool of volunteers. Today, this assumption is increasingly a myth. By the Department of Defense’s own estimates, almost 70% of American youth are currently ineligible to volunteer for military service due to health issues, educational deficits, or prior engagement with the criminal justice system. Further, recent studies suggest a sharp decline in the willingness of serving military members to recommend service to their children. This is happening at the same time that the willingness of current high school students to consider military service is at an all-time low. In part, this could explain why, in 2018, the Army missed its recruiting goals for the first time since 2005.

To be clear, almost all military leaders acknowledge that as a fighting force, a military composed of volunteers is vastly superior to a conscripted force. At the same time, some of those same military leaders also acknowledge that the all-volunteer military – as it has evolved over 17 years of war – is beginning to show cracks. Those cracks stem from a profoundly troubling and unintended consequence of the all-volunteer force model: a military composed of a small and increasingly non-representative slice of the American populous, serves to disconnect the human and economic consequences of war from American society.

Several years ago, General Stanley McChrystal became one of the first senior military leaders of his generation to call for a return to the draft, saying, “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, and every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision, and everybody has skin in the game.”

At the time, General McChrystal’s remarks were both controversial and largely dismissed as provocative bluster. Six years later, I would label his position as prophetic.

Our post-9/11 wars illustrate the unintended but insidious nature of fielding and sustaining a military force, separate and apart from those who benefit from a safe and prosperous nation. In fact, the worst fears of those who architected the all-volunteer policy in 1973 included a concern that because only ‘some’ Americans would bear the human and fiscal burdens of war – war as an instrument of foreign policy would become far too easy. At the same time, it was also feared that those who do volunteer to fight our wars, would be cast as ‘the government’s problem’ when they arrive home.

In the 45 years since the all-volunteer force has been law, the United States has used military force as an instrument of foreign policy on more than 220 occasions. Alternatively, in the 45 years prior to the policy – when a conscription model of military service was the law of the land – the U.S. leveraged military force as an instrument of foreign policy on just 24 occasions.

Some of this contrast can rightfully be attributed to a contemporary global security situation that is increasingly dynamic and interconnected. However, the increased propensity of our elected leaders to default to military conflict, as a proxy for diplomacy, can be partially explained by the fact that without ‘skin in the game,’ war becomes far too easy. When you don’t have to pay the bill, or when it’s not your child being compelled to fight the nation’s battles – or not generally the children of your constituents – war becomes far too easy to wage.

At the same time, why do those who today volunteer to fight our wars, come home to and express feelings of social isolation? Why do veterans cite that one of the most significant barriers they face, when transitioning from military service to civilian society, is a lack of empathy and connectedness to their civilian peers at work, at school, or in their communities? It is because as a nation, we’ve been unwilling to enact public policy that deeply connects all Americans to the seminal assumption of the all-volunteer force model: those who volunteer to serve the cause of America’s defense must be supported by all of society in their post-service pursuits.

Today, the majority of Americans are, at best, only superficially engaged in efforts to serve and support those who this nation sends off to find, fight, and kill our enemies. For example, last year less than one-half of one percent of all charitable contributions made by Americans were directed toward charities and non-profit organizations supporting veterans. In comparison, in the same year Americans donated to animal welfare charities and zoos at five times that level.

The majority of Americans are overwhelmingly against a return to the draft. However, it’s now clear that when the costs and consequences of war are disconnected from the citizenry, war as a proxy for diplomacy has little political consequence, and those who volunteer to fight our wars are too easily taken for granted when they arrive home. For these reasons, a national conversation focused on the future of the all-volunteer force is long overdue. To be meaningful, that discussion must include policy proposals crafted to create a self-interest – on the part of all Americans – to assume equitable burden sharing associated with current and future wars. In other words, policy proposals that require ‘skin in the game’ for all Americans and American institutions, on those occasions when we send some of the nation’s sons and daughters to war.

To that end, I’d offer the following as a meaningful, and likely provocative, beginning to that conversation.

First, Congress should enact policy mandating that any private sector firm generating revenue from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Department of Veteran Affairs, make annual philanthropic contributions – equaling 1% of the revenue generated from those sources – to non-profit programs that support the nation’s veterans and their families. Compliance with this requirement would be a condition of the firm’s eligibility to do business with those federal agencies.

Second, Congress should enact policy that requires institutions of higher-education, which receive any form of federal funding, to provide financial aid to military veterans – otherwise competitively admitted to their institutions – equal to or exceeding 1% of the total federal funding received by those institutions each year. In addition, to remain eligible for any form of federal funding, colleges and universities must enroll veterans, military spouses, or military children at a level equal to or exceeding 1% of the total enrolled student population at the institution.

Finally, all Americans households will pay an annual volunteer-military tax of $25.00. This tax will seed and fund a National Veterans Trust, designated to support community-connected programs and social service providers serving the needs of veterans. Households where a first-degree family member is currently serving in the U.S. military, or has served, will be exempt from this tax. Similarly, if a child from a tax-eligible family chooses to pursue military service (or another, qualified form of contracted national service, such as Teach for America, AmeriCorps, etc.) after high school, that family will receive a one-time tax refund, equal to the present value of the sum of that family’s past volunteer-military tax payments.

I’ll end where I started – with Tim. Over the past decade, I’ve had the honor and the privilege of getting to know many, many women and men like Tim. There are almost 15,000 serving in Afghanistan and other locations overseas right now, and to most Americans, they are and will remain anonymous. After 17 years of war, this nation needs to extend the narrative representing our post-9/11 wars to be inclusive of all Americans, and all American institutions. After 17 years of war, this nation’s leaders must demonstrate the moral courage to introduce, debate, and enact public policy that makes it the duty of all Americans to shoulder the costs and consequences of war. In the absence of courage, war as policy will remain far too easy a pursuit, our wars will drag on without end, and Tim will remain anonymous.

Dr. Mike Haynie is the Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation, IVMF Founder & Executive Director, and the Barnes Professor of Entrepreneurship. He is also a veteran of the United States Air Force.  The views expressed here are his alone.

Bona Fides (select):

  • Veteran, United States Air Force (1992-2006)
  • PhD, Entrepreneurship & Business Strategy, University of Colorado, Boulder (2005)
  • Professor, United States Air Force Academy (1999-2005)
  • Vice Chancellor, Syracuse University (2006 – Present)
  • Founder & Executive Director, Institute for Veterans and Military Families (2010 – Present)
  • Appointed Member, Scientific Advisory Board, Millennium Cohort Research Study, Naval Health Research Center (2015-present)
  • Appointed member & Vice-Chairman; National Task Force to Reform the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (MyVA), (2015-2017; appointed by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald)
  • Appointed Member & Chairman;  External Advisory Committee on Veterans Employment & Training, U.S. Department of Labor (2014-present, appointed by U.S. Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez)
  •   National Advisory Board Member, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the “Veterans Coming Home Project,” (2014-present).

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