What percentage of Americans ever served in the US military? The number is actually considerably higher than I expected.
The subject of military service came up in a place where I get the inspiration for many of my story ideas: my Facebook feed. A very interesting article by “FiveThirtyEight,” a site I never heard of before, explained that there are about 22 million living US veterans, which works out to about 7.4% of Americans, have ever served in the military. I thought that was interesting, because the number we normally hear is “less than 1%.” But that figure is only for currently-serving members of the military and is not inclusive of all veterans. We would expect the vets-to-population ratio to be considerably higher. So I did what I always do when I read something interesting: I did some fact-checking.
FiveThirtyEight’s article helpfully provides several links to authoritative primary sources, including the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA posts slightly different statistics, stating that there are around 20 million living veterans, as shown in the excerpt below:
If the US population is 335 million, and there are 20 million (+/-) living veterans, then the percentage of Americans who ever served in the military is… <does math> about 6%. So 6% of Americans ever served in the Armed Forces.
Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Well, our military has been an all-volunteer force for at least a decade. That means we haven’t had to resort to a draft, which is generally seen as a good thing (by most, but not all). Also, the fewer people there are in the military, the more citizens are potentially out there in the economy, generating the wealth that helps fuel our qualitative military advantage.
But the super-small proportion of veterans within the American population as a whole comes with some disadvantages. To begin with, a small percentage of veterans and active duty military personnel make it unlikely that national-level decision makers will have any kind of real relationships with military personnel. They might see some around the halls of the Pentagon, or see someone in uniform on the subway, but they didn’t grow up with them. They aren’t friends with them. They weren’t “at the wedding.”
So they see the military more as a concept than something that is made of flesh and blood. Additionally, the military has outsized influence in America but not enough of a constituency to really matter when it comes to things like… I don’t know, holding people accountable for a 20-year-long war that we decided to lose. And finally, with the military becoming more and more of a family business, fewer and fewer Americans will feel connected to the military, which will become less and less of a percentage of the American population, as our country continues to grow.
The above factors make it far too easy for the “deciders” to use the military option and put the military in harm’s way, and to do so without much in the way of consequence. So while the answer to “what percentage of Americans ever served” might be a little over six percent (veterans + active duty), the question about whether this is good or bad for our nation, and our service members, will remain open.
LTC (Ret.) Charles (Charlie) Faint is a former US Army officer with extensive Special Operations experience who served seven combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as operational assignments in Egypt, the Republic of Korea, and The Philippines. Charlie holds an MA in International Relations and a Doctor of Business Administration degree from Temple University, and also taught for a number of years at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is the owner of The Havok Journal. This article represents his personal opinion and not that of any other person or organization.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.