American Ignorance of War

We Americans, unlike the citizens of the countries of Europe and much of Asia,  are woefully ignorant of what war is like. The last war we had on our own territory was the civil war, 160 years ago. As a result, the grisly reality of combat is unknown to us.

Military veterans are more likely than others to have some sense of the ghastliness of the battlefield, but as time passes we have fewer and fewer veterans. The draft ended in 1973. In 1980, according to the Census Bureau, 18 percent of the U.S. population were veterans. By 2000, the number was down to 12.7 percent. Those numbers have continued to dwindle as fewer and fewer men and women served in the military. Today, fewer than 7.6 percent of the population are veterans.

And even among veterans, those who served in combat are far fewer than the total. A combat veteran is defined as one who has been fired upon, either directly or indirectly, by an enemy combatant, and has fired upon an enemy combatant. According to various sources, about a third of all veterans served in a combat zone. That means something like 2.5 percent of all Americans have experienced being on or near the battlefield. How many have actually engaged in combat will be somewhat fewer.

The likelihood of suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) as a result of combat is unclear. Figures I’ve been able to gather indicate that something like a third of all those who have experienced combat report some traumatic or distressing experience, but only 18 percent are subject to PTSI. My own sense is that all who survive combat are damaged to some extent, some (like me) more than others. I can’t believe that any human being can experience combat without being profoundly affected.

The fact that so many who have lived through combat are subject to PTSI is prima facie evidence of its severity. It is incurable. The only path open to the sufferer is to learn to cope.

Yet so many Americans dismiss PTSI as weakness or cowardice. My sense is that they can only do that because they haven’t a glimmer of what a PTSI victim has been through.

So in my writing and speaking, I stress the butchery that combat entails. I want people to know what they are asking of their young men and women when they subject them to war. I’m hoping that people who understand the carnage of combat will think twice before entering into war.

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