Within the lifetime and personal memories of many Americans still living, most everyone knew farmers and soldiers. As late as America’s entry into World War I, over 42% of Americans still lived on farms. It’s hard not to know a farmer or have spent time on a farm when 4 out of 10 of your countrymen lived their lives in agriculture.
Similarly, everyone knew soldiers not so long ago. WWI drafted 2.8 million Americans, when America only had 50 million men in total. WWII took 10 million draftees, and there were 3.4 million between Korea and Vietnam. One way of looking at Vietnam, for example, is that the draftees were as many as all boys in the United States who turned 18 in 1970 — a pretty large group of Baby Boomers. And none of these figures include the men who enlisted — surprisingly, perhaps, the total number of Vietnam veterans is over 2,500,000. So for a long time in America it has been true that most Americans knew something of farming and the military in a direct personal way.
No longer. As a statistical matter today, there are almost no new soldiers or farmers in America. Annual military recruits amount to 175,000 or so a year in a country of 300,000,000. And it’s even worse in agriculture. There are lilterally almost no new farmers in America today. At the time of WWII, farming still occupied 18% of the labor force – it’s less than 2% today. Every single year America loses more farmers than it creates. Many (perhaps most?) young Americans probably have not one single friend who becomes a farmer or soldier today.
Mark Steyn asks from time to time why there are no war songs today, as opposed to WWII. Part of the reason is leftist Hollywood, of course, but another aspect of the phenomenon is this: all Americans were involved in WWII (see the PBS Soundies program, for example); very few are involved in America’s fight today. In WWII, war songs were about us; today war songs would be about them.
We sometimes hear from the worthies on talk radio that this is the same America that won WWII, and just you wait, fella, til that power is unleashed. Well, this is pretty clearly not the America of WWII. The millions of farmers and soldiers of yesteryear are the Halo-players and web designers and J-Lo wannabes of today. And there is not much memory of that older America to boot. There are justifiable reasons to be very concerned about these collective losses of experience, memory and toughness in our very dangerous world.
This is not a piece about decline and pessimism, however. Research (see eg, Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert’s interesting lecture and book) shows time and again that the resiliency and adaptability of men and women to crisis, hardship and cruel misfortune is far above what they themselves anticipate. For the most part, the most recent generations of Americans have not been tested in the way some earlier generations have. When such tests come, it remains to be see whether these generations will perform in the manner of farmers and soldiers past, and what manner of patriotic songs will be sung.
It is, however, a serious error to judge the fruits of affluence as irreversible symptoms of decline. We cannot know the outcome at this time.