Since 1970, the population of the United States has grown by about 50 percent, from roughly 200 million to 300 million. Over the same period, the number of active-duty armed forces has fallen approximately 50 percent, from 3 million to 1.4 million. A far smaller percentage of the citizenry now serves in the military. Whereas in 1969 13 percent of Americans were veterans, in 2007 only 8 percent of us were.
Even more important than these general demographic shifts is the change wrought by the end of the draft in 1973. Until then, military service was distributed pretty evenly across regions. But that is no longer true. The residential patterns for current veterans and the patterns of state-level contributions of new recruits to the all-volunteer military have a distinct geographic tilt. And tellingly, the map of military service since 1973 aligns closely with electoral maps distinguishing red from blue states.
This is not simply an issue of people retiring to warm states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas. A 2005 Heritage Foundation analysis of Defense Department and census data on enlistments found that Montana, Alaska, Florida, Wyoming, Maine and Texas send the most young people per capita to the military. The states with the lowest contribution rates? Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
What's clear from the data is that a major national institution, the U.S. military, now has tighter connections to some regions of the country than others.
And we can't simply treat the uneven pattern of military service as an insignificant reflection of the cultural differences that characterize different regions of this diverse country. Military institutions across nations and throughout time have always been important creators of culture. They strive to develop unbreakable bonds of solidarity among their members based on shared values, experiences and outlooks. In this country, the military's leadership role in racial integration has been understood in just this way.
During the recent presidential campaign, bothBarack Obama and John McCain called for restoring idealism and rededicating citizenship to service. Doing so would require paying attention to the fact that the all-volunteer military has dramatically segmented American experience.
It is time to think seriously about a structure for national service -- both military and non-military -- that could successfully integrate young people from different regions of the country so that they will come, at least, to understand each other. We need to weave a fabric of shared citizenship anew.
The writer is the UPS Foundation Professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.