Thursday, June 4, 2015

War and Peace: For how much of your life has the U.S. been at war?

This Washington Post blog post by Philip Bump caught my attention, mainly for the eye-catching infographic copied below. To see the image more clearly, please visit the Post blog.

Image Credit: This corrected graphic appears with the cited WaPo article

Most people graduating from college this year were born in 1992 or 1993. Here is a sobering dose of reality for young people preparing to embark on new careers post-graduation:

If you are an American born in the early 1990s, your country has been at war for approximately 64% of your lifespan.

The motive of the article and accompanying infographic was to provide information to correct the statistic offered by a recent commencement speaker, Martha Raddatz, who underestimated the actual number at 50%.

The idea of the graphic is well-explained in the blog post. The graphic is effective for its purpose of showing a person of a given birth year approximately how many years the US has been at war over the course of their lifespan.

The graphic has a couple of other uses as well.

  • One can look at the chart and quickly see that about 60 million young Americans have lived their whole lives in a country at war. 
  • I was born in 1960. There are approximately 4.5 million Americans in my cohort. The United States has been at war for approximately 44.6% of our lives. 
  • I spent 33 years in uniform, and 28 as a commissioned officer on active duty. During the course of my active duty career, the Nation was at war 81% of the time. 

One could quibble, I suppose, with what gets counted as a war and what does not, and how the duration of each war is tabulated, but I believe Mr Bump explains these things satisfactorily.  I have no quarrel with the idea of rounding conflicts up to the nearest whole year, because even though the first Gulf War lasted only 100 hours, the preparation and recovery easily filled up a year. And I have no real issue with Kosovo not counting as combat, even though when I was there, and we wore helmets and flak jackets and carried weapons and ammo for a reason.

But I do have a serious beef with the infographic.

This chart implies that if the Nation is at war, the population experiences the effects of war equally. The motivating idea of the chart was to correct a commencement speaker on a statistic, and I agree that 64% is more accurate than 50%. However, no 22-year old graduating today has picked up a rifle in defense of Country. Unless they come from a military family where a parent or older sibling has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they have not participated in the wars that have been fought during their lifetimes. The people of a cohort do not experience the effects of war equally.

So what is missing from the chart? One percent of the citizens have done 100% of the fighting.That is what's missing. Show the numbers of people in each annual cohort who have spent time in uniform, and I'll be happier with the chart.

So I sent the article's author the following email. We'll see what happens.

Dear Mr. Bump: 
Bottom line up front: The graphic accompanying your May 25th article, “Here’s how much of your life the United States has been at war,” is good but could be easily improved with dramatic effect. Consider showing the numbers of veterans in each cohort. It’s fine to tell today’s graduates that they have actually been living in a country at war 64% of their lives rather than only 50%, but the broader point of your post (and Martha Raddatz’s original intent) was to illustrate that 1% of the population has done 100% of the fighting. Today’s young people do not have much connection to war unless a parent or older sibling has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan—and the probability of that is a very small.
You can get the Census Bureau data on Veterans in each cohort. I am just asking you to include the numbers of Veterans in the mix. We have 25 million living Veterans. Spread them out across the population in each year group so your readers can see what 1% looks like. I think you will see a relatively high proportion of the population who were Veterans from the WWII era, and that also helps make you point.
I noticed you have already corrected the chart once, to fix the scale on the left side. Why not really drive your point home? Put Veterans on the chart and update the article. Will you consider it?
Thank you for reading and keep up the great work!

During my 28-year military career, which spanned from my commissioning in May of 1984 to my retirement in May 2012, the military forces of our great Nation were called upon many times. There were hundreds of operations short of war that did not make the cut for this infographic. But again, that is not the issue. The issue is that every time the Nation called, the volunteers who were already in uniform anyway were always the ones who answered. The gap between the average citizen and the professional soldier is too large for a healthy society.

This graphic appeared with the original WaPo article. The scale on the left side has been since corrected.