The American troops who fought in World War II have been called "the greatest generation" (as in the title of a book about them written by television's Tom Brokaw).
Alas, because of a decision made 40 years ago, today there is no equivalent of those soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought so bravely to help our allies thwart the evil ambitions of villains like Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo.
In 1973, conscription - more popularly called the draft - ended and since then the United States has relied exclusively on an all-volunteer military. This has brought about huge changes, and left the heavy lifting to a smaller segment of the American public.
In a recent issue of the New York Times, Karl W. Elkenberry, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded American forces in Afghanistan and later served as our nation's ambassador there, and David M. Kennedy, a distinguished history professor, presented an essay in which they argued that the absence of the draft has dangerously widened the gap between the American people and their armed forces.
"For nearly two generations, no American has been obligated to join up, and few do," they wrote. "Less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II.
"Even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms."
Thus the burden today is borne by those who don't have access to the advantages of privilege and power. And they are further removed from our political sector than was the case in the past.
"In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform," Elkenberry and Kennedy pointed out.
One result is that "so many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a 'family business.' Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged. History suggests that such scenarios don't end well," the authors observed.
Also: Information and navigation technologies have "vastly amplified the individual warrior's firepower" allowing for a more compact and less costly military.
Today's Pentagon budget accounts for less than 5 percent of gross domestic product and less than 20 percent of the federal budget. During the Vietnam war, that figure was 45 percent of federal expenditures.
"The military's role has expanded far beyond the traditional battlefield," they continued, citing "nation-building" initiatives such as infrastructure projects and the promotion of the rule of law.
"Together, these developments present a disturbingly novel spectacle: a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension," they warned. "Today's wars make extensive use of computers and robots, giving some civilians the decidedly false impression that the grind and horror of combat are things of the past."
As for the present, they noted that, "the civilian-military divide erodes the sense of duty that is critical to the health of our democratic republic, where the most important office is that of the citizen. While the armed forces retool for the future, citizens cannot be mere spectators."
Reinstating the draft (or some form of mandatory public service) would mean more civilians would be more than "mere spectators" and have a larger interest in public affairs.
So far there are few signs the public or politicians are ready to do that, but perhaps the time has come for Americans to at least debate the issue.