You Sacrifice, We Cheer

America’s will to see through difficult military campaigns is best gauged by the sacrifice asked of its citizenry.  Commitment is reflected on the home front by the willingness to forgo at least some comforts.  Nothing foregone, nothing invested.

As Stanford historian David Kennedy reminds, sacrifice literally means, “to make holy.”  During the US’ major military engagements that sacred rite has been eagerly accepted by a citizenry cognizant that what is worth doing is worth doing right.  And to ask only the young deployed to points near and far to risk all wouldn’t be right.  It would be unholy

Wars were once collective efforts.  During World War I, Americans’ conserved food by incorporating “meatless Tuesdays” and “wheatless Wednesdays” into their culinary routine.  Such forbearance was probably strictly unnecessary, as foodstuff was not in short supply.  But it did help unite the nation.  World War II saw much broader rationing.  Everyday goods like butter, sugar, and gasoline were carefully divvied out, as was silk, nylon, shoes and even chicken wire fencing.  New cars couldn’t be had—their manufacture was illegal—nor could lumber for house construction without great difficultly.

The government heavily promoted the purchase of war bonds, partially to raise revenue and to control inflation.  The scheme had a more important purpose, though.  “Sixty percent of the reason'' for the bond drive,” Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., later conceded, was ''to give the people an opportunity to do something,'' and ''make the country war-minded.''  The bonds were to “sell the war, rather than vice versa.''

The fudging made sense.  Americans wanted to contribute, a point Roosevelt emphasized during one of his fireside chats. Rationing, he explained, would provide those denied “the privilege of fighting our enemies in distant parts of the world” the opportunity to do their share.  The country responded.  Twenty million Americans planted “Victory Gardens,” which eventually produced 40 percent of all vegetables consumed nationwide, and few complained when top marginal tax rates hit ninety-four percent.

The sacred link between war making and war sacrificing began to fray during Vietnam.  A great nation, Lyndon Johnson promised, could have its guns and butter, its great war and its Great Society.  But Americans were asked to sacrifice in one important way: manpower.  The draft ensured that the burden of fielding hundreds of thousands of troops to the war zone was widely shared.  In time, this proved decisive.  American’s didn’t feel the war was worth the cost and eventually demanded out.  

If Vietnam taught that burdensome unpopular wars could not be sustained then subsequent conflicts bore out an inverse lesson: unpopular wars can be sustained if few pay their price.  Thus, George W. Bush spoke in messianic terms about Afghanistan and Iraq but when asked what could be done on the home front to support the conflicts he urged Americans to shop.  In the same vein, he put the war’s cost on credit.  No pain, all gain. 

Less than one percent of Americans are actually involved in the fighting.  And that small sliver increasingly comes from a beleaguered demographic that is neither broad nor representative.  Recent Pentagon figures show that nearly half of military recruits come from lower-middle-class to poor households.  Moreover, with the military bursting at the seams, many soldiers are subject to repeated deployments, causing enormous strain.  Between 2003-2008, the Pentagon deemed 43,000 troops as medically unfit for combat but due to personnel shortages but they were deployed to Iraq of Afghanistan anyway.  Yet talk of instituting a draft to relieve the stress has never gained traction.  Nor has the notion of a “war tax” to actually pay for the one trillion dollar military campaigns.

A new administration has brought back a semblance of responsibility to governing, but the gap between the nation’s purported foreign ambitions and the willingness to shoulder the burdens to achieve them remains glaring.  That gulf is borne out in polls.  At least half of all Americans doubt the necessity of the war in Afghanistan.  Why, then, pay for what you don’t believe in?  So we’re doing it on the cheap, asking little from most and most from little.  

This is no recipe for success.  As David Kennedy writes, “The contrast between the country's sorry experience in Vietnam and its achievement in World War II suggest that some measure of civilian sacrifice, illusory or not, may be necessary to sustain the will to go the bitter distance.”  So forget the much-discussed deadlines for withdrawal said to indicate our lack of will.  Our lacking will is manifest closer to home.  No sacrifice has ensured no victory.     


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