Sven E. Wilson: Veterans play key role in rebuilding civic culture

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Veteran Thomas Goff salutes as Taps is played at the Veterans Day Commemoration at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday Nov. 11, 2019.

The United States has been at war for nearly two decades in faraway places across the globe. There is much talk today about ending these “endless wars,” though it remains the case that thousands of our troops are still deployed in dangerous battle zones. Regardless of where one stands on the wisdom of these conflicts, it is hard to argue with the claim that making war is perhaps the most consequential act a nation undertakes, and service members who fight have their lives changed forever.

The history of our society is shaped by how war affects soldiers, their families and the communities from which they hail.

Often, public attention given to returning service members focuses on the negative: the very real problems troops face with civilian relationships, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, or difficulty living with disability. The emotional toll of military service, especially combat experience, is certainly immeasurable.

But we ought to focus, as well, on positive things that can come from military service. The military enterprise involves gaining valuable work and social skills, working and living with people from disparate backgrounds, solving problems, and sacrificing for the greater good. Indeed, in this moment of social fracture, the military has long been recognized as an integrating force in our country.

These aspects of service should cultivate in veterans a propensity to engage in civic activities once their service is over. Harvard scholar Robert Putnam has famously provided evidence that participation in civic groups and associations declined significantly over the latter 20th century, leading to problems associated with “bowling alone.” We suggest that the civic effects of military service have worked against these broader negative trends.

In newly published research, we conduct a statistical analysis of whether veterans are more or less likely to participate in civic groups. Using the National Survey of Families and Households, we apply the same definitions of civic associations used by Putnam, including, for example, unions, fraternities and sporting clubs, and we examine the number of groups in which people participate and the intensity of that participation. Our central finding is that veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam were more likely to be civically engaged later in their lives than their nonveteran peers. We also find that this engagement is slightly higher for combat veterans compared to noncombat veterans.

Veterans have an edge in civic activity because of the long history of active veteran groups such as the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But we find that veterans are also more engaged in civic groups beyond veteran associations. They are more involved, for instance, with sports, youth groups, and fraternal organizations — the kinds of places we might expect former soldiers to hang out. Veterans belong to 21% more groups than nonveterans and have a 19% higher level of participation in those groups.

Previous research has established that one of the strongest correlates of civic participation is education, particularly postsecondary education. Perhaps veterans are more engaged simply because of the educational benefits, such as the GI Bill after World War II? Our research shows that postsecondary education plays at most a minor role in the civic participation story for veterans. Even after controlling for education and the family background of veterans, military service still has a statistically significant association with civic participation.

In the all-volunteer military we have now, it is plausible that the types of people who sign up for military service have a disposition toward civic engagement; thus, we would expect those recruits to have a higher level of engagement in later life. In our research, however, we go back in time to when there was a universal draft, and many men were either conscripted into service or enlisted because they knew they were likely to be drafted. This mitigates the self-selection problem. We find that men from each of the three major conflicts were engaged with civic groups at a higher rate than their nonveteran peers when they participated in the late 1980s in the National Survey of Families and Households (the source of our data).

Today, it is not hard to see evidence of a fraying civil society. The concerns raised by social capital scholars such as Putnam are even more relevant now than they were in the past century. Social media has transformed our social networks, but the strength and value of those networks have not necessarily improved. We suggest that the military has valuable lessons to teach us about building long-lasting social relationships and strengthening our civil society.

At the least, we need to better understand the consequences of military service. If making war doesn’t transform a person, what possibly could?

Sven Wilson, chair of the political science department at BYU

Sven E. Wilson is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Brigham Young University and a research economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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