Recently at the Naval Academy, there has been a lot of focus on America's being "a nation at war." This emphasis is shared at the other service academies and at military training bases. Drill sergeants use the phrase "nation at war" to heighten the awareness of recruits as they go about the process of training and preparing young American servicemen and women for their shared destiny: Most will soon be in combat.
The "nation at war" concept, however, fails to resonate or meet with much enthusiasm outside the military. That's because, upon reflection, one finds that America is not really a nation at war. Only America's military is at war. And servicemen and women know this.
The war is little more than a headline or sound bite to most Americans. It poses no inconvenience and is regarded as little more than a newsworthy nuisance to a public more interested in following the Major League Baseball pennant races or the recent arrest of O. J. Simpson. The war is background noise.
The numbers back this up. There are 1.3 million servicemen and women on active duty, and another 1.1 million in the National Guard and Reserves. This represents less than 1 percent of the American population. Even with the "surge," the Pentagon reports there are only about 169,000 troops in Iraq. In sheer numerical terms, the "surge" qualifies as little more than an operational nudge.
The minuscule size of our armed forces relegates the "global war on terror" to the status of other out-of-sight, out-of-mind activities. We follow this war about as much as we pay attention to the daily operations of the Department of Agriculture.
It's hard to buy into the "nation at war" fiction when the former Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, got canned after proposing that a large force of 400,000 troops would be needed to secure Iraq. History has proved General Shinseki a prescient leader while simultaneously demonstrating that our force structure remains woefully inadequate for the job it has been asked to do.
But it's not only the small size of the armed forces that makes the war increasingly foreign and irrelevant to most Americans. Today, the idea of being a nation at war does not carry the sense of urgency that it once did. And why should it? Waging the American-style global war on terror is increasingly a contracted-out activity. There are more contractors - 180,000 - in Iraq than there are troops in uniform. To an otherwise uninterested public, this extensive use of contractors has made the current war more analogous to operating a foreign business enterprise than a genuine conflict of national import.
This shift - from war as a struggle for survival to warfare conducted as an economic activity - increases America's apathy. After all, economic challenges are nothing new to Americans; they get up and go to work every day trying to make ends meet.
As military sociologist Charles Moskos and others have said for years, there is a "great divorce" between Americans and their military. And the gap is growing. Part of the problem, Mr. Moskos argues, is the disproportionate burden that the all-volunteer force places on Americans from the lower socioeconomic strata of our society. Less-fortunate youths join the military primarily to find a job. To economically better-off Americans, the armed forces provide no such incentive; they don't serve because they have other options. The result is a very small force that most Americans really don't think much about.
Of course, mandatory military service - a draft - would drastically change this outlook. Such a draft could be designed to equally distribute service requirements among the rich, the middle class and the poor. The chances of this happening are remote, however. After all, reinstituting the draft would mean accepting something for which Americans don't seem prepared: the idea that we really are a nation at war.
Donald H. Horner Jr. is a distinguished professor of leadership education at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. His opinions do not represent those of the Department of Defense. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.