Soldiers Without Uniforms

Those Americans who lived through World War II are revered as ‘the Greatest Generation’ for a reason. Not only did ten per cent of the country serve in the war, but everyone on the home front made sacrifices in order to bolster the war effort. Women’s fashion changed when fabric rationing called for shorter hemlines. Families were only permitted four gallons of gasoline a week for their cars. Children were served liver in their school lunches so the soldiers could eat chicken. Daily sacrifices were augmented by an increase in taxes, as the government expanded the amount of people paying tax tenfold, and non-defense spending was cut in half. The fact that the country was at war was evident in day-to-day activity.  Ordinary citizens were regarded as ‘soldiers without uniforms’ to sanctify their fundamental role in the war effort. Conscription, rationing, and an increase in taxes worked to create a stronger bond between the military and the rest of society.  Patriotism thus became defined as sacrifice. President Kennedy, a WWII veteran, declared, ‘we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship… in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty’. However, fifty years later this patriotic ideal has been abandoned.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, public domain

Societal sacrifice is a powerful political tool. Support for WWII was seen immediately as volunteers began to inundate the draft board offices. Citizens who could not enlist immediately changed their lifestyle, adopting more simple and selfless habits. Yet lack of support for an unpopular war can have the opposite effect.

The unpopularity of the draft during the Vietnam War led to nation-wide protests. Many Americans disagreed with the intervention on moral and legal grounds, reluctant to sacrifice themselves or their loved ones for an effort they did not believe in. These protests dramatically altered public opinion to such an extent that President Nixon campaigned on a platform of ending the draft. He believed it would be an efficient way of destabilizing the anti war movement. Fifteen years later, President George HW Bush raised taxes to finance the first Gulf War. Americans opposed these policies, partly causing him to lose the election.

For nearly ten years now, that United States has been at war on two different fronts. There is no doubt there was the wealth of patriotism in the United States after the attacks on 9/11. Each household displayed an American flag, flaunting a new sense of unity.  American devotion was rejuvenated, but the definition of patriotism began to change. Loyalty to the homeland was expressed through strong, anti-Islamic rhetoric. Voices screaming ‘USA, USA’ began to replace the humble bravery of previous generations. The American public was never asked to transfer this fervency into a united front at home. Public support for the two wars was already waning, and President Bush knew that calling for any form of sacrifice could provoke a more robust opposition. President George W Bush decided to send the country to war without raising taxes, or cutting spending. The strength of the all-volunteer military meant that citizens were not at risk to be sent overseas, and the Republican philosophy of low taxes meant there were no individual financial consequences. By removing the burden from its citizens, America was able to go to war without having to contemplate the cost. More precisely, by refusing to ask Americans to make any sacrifices, the administration was able to lull any opposition to the war.  A war that is out of sight and out of mind is more difficult to protest.

Nationwide sacrifice was a strategic necessity during World War II. Because of improvements in technology and production, Americans are not threatened by a scarcity of supplies. Rationing, which partially was introduced to avoid public anger with shortages, would now be superfluous. The draft would be redundant as military already has one and a half million active members. The distance between civilians and the armed forces may be a reflection of military strength abroad, but has resulted in a lack of attention at home. This mentality has had dire consequences for American society.  Bush’s irresponsible economic philosophy has forced the economy into a recession and created an uncontrollable deficit. Post-9/11 unity has transformed into a political polarization. The chance to unify the country through shared sacrifice was squandered by Bush’s desire to keep the public out of the war.

Recently on the campaign trail, Obama has rallied for ‘economic patriotism’, asking for support to increase taxes on high-income earners. This has received heavy criticism from Republicans who believe a tax increase is the antithesis of patriotism. History, however, has shown that wars funded by tax increases like Korea and the Gulf War, ended swiftly.  Conflict funded by deficits, such as Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East, seem never ending.  The current political and economic state proves that no war can go unpaid for. The threat of increasing taxes might force Americans to be more considerate of their involvement abroad. Nationwide sacrifice may no longer be a strategic necessity, but it certainly is a patriotic one.