On D-Day's 65th Anniversary, Americans' Reluctance to Serve Is Shameful

In Iraq and Afghanistan, beleaguered troops bear a shameful portion of the nation's burden.

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Never has such a burden been imposed on so few.

Soldiers who landed at Normandy in France on June 6, 1944, and fought all the way through to the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 saw less combat than many soldiers and marines currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are too small to do all that is asked and required of them, yet our political and military leaders have not called upon the American people to serve. In the face of growing threats in Iran, North Korea, and other parts of the world, American men and women are not asked to perform the duties of citizens—responsibilities that have been the hallmark of Western civilization since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as they certainly were when American draftees hit the French beaches. Without the sacrifices of these American servicemen—sacrifices like those their forebears had made for generations—the world would be a different place today.

It is different than it was on June 6, 1944, but something is wrong.

Too many soldiers and marines have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, some as many as five. "Stop loss" policies have precluded soldiers from leaving the Army at the end of their contractual agreements, a practice some have called a "backdoor draft." There are cases of post-traumatic stress disorder on a scale we have never seen before. Families are being destroyed, hurting the children of servicemen and women and diminishing morale. In 2008, 138 soldier deaths were confirmed as suicides, the fourth year in a row the Army has seen an increase. Last month, a soldier on his third tour in Iraq and suffering from PTSD shot and killed five comrades. The psychological damage caused by severe trauma is cumulative.

We are in uncharted waters. Mental health professionals do not fully understand the long-term effects from multiple tours in combat zones. We do know that soldiers who landed in North Africa in November 1942 and fought all the way through to victory also saw less combat than many of the soldiers and marines currently in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know that marines who fought in the first campaign in the Pacific theater at Guadalcanal in August 1942 and the last campaigns at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in February and April 1945 saw less combat than many of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Out of 300 million Americans, less than 1 percent is bearing the full burden of two long wars.

To be sure, the D-Day forces experienced trauma. Liberating Europe from the Axis powers took a horrific toll on life and limb. But U.S. soldiers were paying what their generation recognized as the price of citizenship in a free America.

The failure to ask the American people to serve constitutes not only a failure of leadership but also a failure of citizenship. The fact that there have been no actions taken and no national debate on this issue is indicative of a larger problem.

Today, many Americans are uninvolved, disengaged, disinterested, and unconcerned about the wars their country fights, which suggests they do not understand that price. (For those who serve, a magnetic yellow ribbon on the exterior of a car stating "Support Our Troops" does little but inspire contempt.) Too many Americans are uninformed and uneducated about the history and culture of the people whose support, cooperation, and resources we need to maintain the world economy, to fuel our cars, to sustain our national debt, to maintain our national security, which is inextricably tied to global security, and to avoid another 9/11.

The American people live comfortably with a lie. The lie is that they are not needed, that the armed forces of the United States have sufficient men and women to do all the jobs given to them, that troop morale is high, that the burdens carried and pains felt by military families is negligible, and that there is no anger directed at civilians for their absence from the too numerous battlefields upon which our armed forces fight or for their decision to accept the politically expedient policy of placing the entire burden of the global war on terrorism on the small, professional forces. There is anger, there is pain, and there is contempt. However, it is all out of sight and out of mind. The distance between the American people and their armed forces has grown considerably in the years since D-day and exponentially since the Vietnam War, facilitating the maintenance of the comfortable facade that the American people no longer have a part to play in war, beyond that of spectator.

Adrian R. Lewis, a retired Army major, is a professor of history at the University of Kansas and the Naval War College and author of The American Culture of War: A History of American Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory.