The wars they are a-changin’

Peace & Justice

The attitudes of young Catholics toward the military conflicts of the last 10 years spring from a complex web of influences that include demographics, church leadership, and media coverage.

But a major piece of the story is the drastic shift from citizens going to war in a country with a mandatory draft to the all-volunteer army we have today.

Despite the popular perception that the U.S. Army in Vietnam consisted overwhelmingly of draftees, only about a quarter of soldiers in that war had been drafted into service, compared with 66 percent of the force in World War II. But the draft played an enormous psychological role in perceptions of the war.

Of the 2.6 million American troops who served in Vietnam, about three-quarters came from working-class or low-income families. The draft offered deferments to college students, which meant poorer and less-educated young men were far likelier to fight than the children of wealthy elites. Those elites generally disapproved of the conflict, too, which meant they were less likely to encourage their sons to volunteer. The average American soldier in combat in Vietnam was male, unmarried, and 19 or 20 years old, according to an analysis by Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine editor Richard Kolb cited by The New York Times. Sixty-one percent of the 58,000 Americans killed were 21 years old or younger. In 1973, the year the United States converted to an all-volunteer military, only a quarter of soldiers were married.


However unequal the burden, there was still a sense that “everyone” went to war—that your son, brother, or husband could be sent away. That feeling was a huge factor in galvanizing the protest movement against the war. And the war that could sweep anyone into action also killed more of its soldiers: The Washington Post reported in 2006 that the death rate of American soldiers in Vietnam was 5.6 times the rate of the war in Iraq.

Today about half of all soldiers are married, a change that’s emblematic of broader shifts that have taken place in the era of the all-volunteer army. Today’s army recruits are still unlikely to come from upper-class families, but a 2005 Heritage Foundation report found that young recruits (ages 18 to 24) are likelier to have a high-school degree than their peers are. Soldiers today are joining an institution that many spend decades in: what The New York Times describes as “a professional, blue-collar military.”

The end of the draft is only one way in which 21st-century wars have had a looser hold on the national consciousness. Moral theologian Tobias Winright, who remembers seeing caskets on the news as a child during the war in Vietnam, says his students haven’t seemed as viscerally affected by recent wars, even if they have friends or family members in the military.

“Students know people it’s affecting, but it still seems, ironically, a little less direct,” he says. “Since 9/11 and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have been able to keep on shopping, going to school, and going to work, unlike wars in the past where there’s rationing, and it affected our daily way of life. We’re a little bit more removed from the actual impact of war.”

This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 9, page 17).