Today is Memorial Day, when we honor those who died in America's wars. It's often said that Americans are increasingly disconnected from the military, since the all-volunteer force, not to mention the limited nature of the wars we've waged since Vietnam, means that most Americans don't serve or even have family members who serve. I thought it might be worthwhile to look at some figures on the number who served and the number who died, to place that change in context.
The number of Americans who were in uniform peaked during the national mobilizations of World War I and World War II, particularly the latter, when more than 16 million Americans were in the armed forces:
During the two world wars, virtually everyone would have had loved ones who participated in the war in some way, which becomes much clearer if we look at those numbers in relation to the size of the country.* As a proportion of the population, 14 times as many Americans served in World War II as did in the wars of the last decade.
As horrible as the 6,600 American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are, the numbers in most of our previous wars were far higher, for reasons including the nature of the conflicts and the far more primitive battlefield medicine available at the time. The bloodiest conflict in our history, by a long way, was the last fought in our own territory. Figures for Civil War dead have always been approximate; for many years 618,000 was the accepted estimate of total deaths, but one recent study places the figure at 750,000. I've used the smaller number here.
Even in those earlier conflicts, most people who served came back alive. But the difference between today and even Vietnam, not to mention World War II, is stark. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there was one death for every 378 service members who deployed. In Vietnam, the figure was one death for every 58 who deployed, and in both World War I and World War II it was around one per 40. During the Civil War it was one per 5. That of course meant that many more Americans would know someone who died.
America will have more wars; it's what we do. And as we rely more on drones and other types of modern technology to fight, those numbers will likely decline even further.
* For these graphs I've used population figures from the census prior to the start of the war; figures on casualties and servicemembers deployed can be found here or here, with the latest Iraq and Afghanistan figures here.