We live in extraordinary times. People have supercomputers in their pockets. They are more likely to die of old age or obesity than war or famine. And, the last time that there was a nationwide draft was in the 1960s for the Vietnam War.
This last point is especially important. Going back for thousands of years, young men have been enlisted to serve their countries. Many have done so out of patriotic duty, others were coerced into service by the threat of imprisonment or worse, but for the first time in millennia, we’re living in a time without complete mobilization for war. Despite a belligerent president, despite his aggressive, violent actions, we’re in a time of peace.
I want to be clear here: just because we’ve had many decades of peace doesn’t mean the peace will continue. To use a Bertrand Russell thought experiment: imagine a turkey who only sees a nice farmer show up with food each morning, every morning of its life, until Thanksgiving. I don’t want to be the turkey.
But, we can say that this time of relative peace is anomalous, and perhaps indicative of something. First, nuclear weapons deserve a lot of credit. As Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, nuclear weapons allowed for the two superpowers at the time — the USSR and the USA— to avoid complete mobilization of the country for war. Instead, both countries built more and more nuclear weapons, fueled massive investment in science and industry, and fought each other in proxy wars (or to go to space).
Second, the media deserves some credit for its role in showing the horrors of war. During the Vietnam War, the United States, for the first time, saw an unvarnished, brutal and disturbing vision of war. It was not the first time that war was horrible. The Allied bombing of Dresden turned the city into a lunar landscape.
The Axis atrocities during the war are well chronicled and deeply, deeply concerning about the capability of man when beholden to a distorted sense of morality. And so were the acts committed by the British or the Colonial French or Belgians or the Huns or the Romans… Again, I want to be clear here: I’m saying that war is always horrible — it always has been and always will be. Also, not everyone in the Vietnam War, or any war, committed atrocities. There were many, many good people who went to fight because it was their civic duty. And they did the best they could in the situation.
Today, information is more plentiful than ever. We have vast amounts of video, images, audio and more available from every region of the earth — even places that actively seek to inhibit such information. Even if we don’t speak the language, we can use machine translations to understand the text.
Finally, democracy is on the rise, as are a number of international organizations. There’s a lot of concern right now about anti-democratic groups or if our democracy is facing something new that it can’t handle. Those are worthwhile questions for another post. But, in general, the world is becoming more democratic, and traditionally democracies don’t go to war with one another.
Democracies are well adapted to peacefully resolving conflicts internal to countries as well. Spain and the United Kingdom both have popular movements for major regions of their countries (Catalonia and Scotland, respectively) to secede from their countries. When South Carolina seceded, it resulted in the United States’ Civil War. This resulting armed conflict wasn’t uncommon.
Democracies can manage such conflict because they resolve conflict with votes and provide a forcing mechanism in limited power through elections.
The rising number of democracies also has seen an increased number of international organizations that aid in resolving conflicts peacefully. For example, the International Court of Justice provides rulings over border conflicts, the World Trade Organization levies fines and helps facilitate trade, and OPEC inhibits resource conflict by securing stable prices for oil. All of these groups have their problems and are worthy of criticism, but each one enables greater dialogue and reduces conflict.
In total, then, young people today are experiencing a period when they can choose to go to war. Nuclear weapons, information sharing, and democratic, international organizations have created a peaceful existence for the first time in a long time. And I think young, white men are feeling the consequences of it.
Today, less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the armed services. Let’s put that into context: in 1801 the United Kingdom enlisted 468,000 men into its armed forces. This was nearly 5 percent of the country’s total population. Many of the men who signed up for the Navy joined at 16 and served for 10 years. If we assume that one-third of the U.K.’s population in 1800 was between 16 and 26, and half of that was male, then there were roughly 1.75 million men who could serve. This means that the UK enlisted 27 percent of its young male population. This was at a time when farming was a much more labor-intensive process than it is today.
To return to the original image of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, these ships held 129 men. And they were lost entirely. The United Kingdom would ship out young men from the island like this all the time — in the name of the country, God or capitalism.
If they lived through their time in the military, they’d often go into public service as politicians or start a business. This was true for generations — the military enabled opportunity. And, in some ways, societies expected some kind of military service.
The last time that military service rose to such heights was in World War II, when the British armed forces enlisted 10 percent of its population. The United States enlisted nearly 9 percent.
The U.S. population was 132.2 million in 1940; roughly 11 million people went into the armed forces. If we use the same extrapolations (one-third of the population between the ages 18 and 28, half men) then roughly half of the United States’ young men went to war. The U.K. enlisted roughly 5 million people or roughly 63 percent of the country’s young men.
And of course they did! Fascism was an existential risk. Germany, Italy and Japan had nearly all of their resources tied into the war effort (at one point, Japan spent 99 percent of its GDP on the war).
The awfulness of World War II, the extreme harshness of its actors, committed the world to the idea that we’d never again go through such actions. Colonies were broken up. International organizations were built in earnest. And, the invention of nuclear weapons kept world leaders honest.
It also gave the world a story. Again, Yuval Noah Harari points out that story of the 20th century centered on the fight of democracy/capitalism against fascism against communism. This was a story that young men could find themselves in.
Today, we live with a cultural vestige of shipping off young men, with a heritage of exonerating those who return; we have a culture where we cherish and prize young boys’ childhoods, for fear of losing them to foreign country or conflict, but we no longer have a society that sends off young men. Our sports still laud aggression and physical toughness, when there’s no practical application for them outside of the playfield.
So, what do we have? Well, in short, we have a lot of purposeless young men who don’t know what to do as young adults. It’s no coincidence 18–28-year-old men can’t find themselves — the world they’re growing up in isn’t design for them to be there. Instead, it’s designed to instill in them discipline, patriotism and a sense of civic duty.
We are the first generation to truly live without a draft, without an armed conflict, and our culture wasn’t ready for it. Masculinity today is in a sorry, sorry state. It’s either hyperaggressive and hostile or it’s subverting itself through irony. It needs reinvention. New role models to rise, men like Barack Obama, who not only admits to years of indiscretion but also found his passion in civic service and family life—in making the world better for the people around him.
As I wrote at the start, we live in extraordinary times. We have the opportunity to consider and contribute to our culture, instead of it being a byproduct of a royal or parliamentary decision. We can debate the depth of the problems, the solutions, and, hopefully, find empathy for each other.
I want to end on a quote from Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club back in 1996 and encapsulated a feeling so very well:
We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.