When the United States moved to an all-volunteer military force in the 1970s it addressed many of the problems that the military had suffered as a result of unwilling conscripts.
Once the Vietnam War ended, military service wasn't such a bad deal. You had to cut your hair and take orders, but you got cool machinery to play with and you could present yourself as a badass. We might still go to war with the Soviets. And if we do, those Russki bastards are in trouble! Especially as the 1980s ramped up under The Great Actor, military prowess became fashionable as its use remained genuinely unlikely. If The Big One hit, there were going to be a whole lot of fireballs in quick succession and then maybe some ground fighting, or maybe just a long period of lingering death. So it was safe to wear and rattle a saber. It was also safe to think of those volunteer warriors as another form of nerd, pursuing a taxpayer funded fantasy life with expensive hardware.
If you had the right specialty you could be thoroughly trained at taxpayer expense and then lured away by a private-sector employer to do the same job for much more money. Military service was just another career move.
At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union crumbled. As the 1990s began, American military might steamrollered Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Conflicts were picking up, but our forces prevailed routinely.
All this time the public paid no attention to the fact that the volunteer military had created a warrior caste separate from the everyday citizen. Military forces became just another service provider. It was a bit riskier business than most, but our technological superiority made the risk seem manageable. There was a little flurry of concern when we sent a large force to Kuwait. We made a point to welcome them back properly, to avoid any sense that we did not appreciate the fine job our brave fighters had done. Good. That's taken care of. Now, back to my stock portfolio.
With the attacks on 9-11-01, the national psyche abruptly changed. First there was a wave of enlistment and a less well documented wave of excuses for not enlisting. The Afghanistan War began. We watched the news. It seemed to be going well. Not Kuwait well, but well. We were cooperating with the local insurgents already fighting the Taliban. We were getting along.
Then came Iraq. To many of us this had all the earmarks of another Vietnam. Many details differed, but the general opportunity to wade into a tar pit was exactly the same. After the invasion established the American occupation, the strange war continued. Casualties mounted. Goals kept changing. All the while, military personnel were sent to do whatever it was we were doing over there, while the ordinary citizens were encouraged to shop and consume, to keep the economy going. The economy is the symbol of our country. It must be kept aloft at any cost.
While the troops were over there we sent them toothpaste, candy, and letters from schoolchildren who were being indoctrinated into the reverence we express for the warriors who face our heinous foes. Yes, you could grow up to be such a hero yourself. When troops returned home they were greeted with hugs, colored ribbons, firm handshakes and fervent thanks. Oh, the thanks. And that is the guilt complex. The noncombatants know they owe the combatants a debt they can never repay, because the noncombatants have not faced death in the same way the combatants have. Suddenly everything you do at home seems trivial compared to tense patrols among IEDs and snipers, or firefights in dusty towns. The warrior servants we created by separating military service from the timeline of every person's adulthood now face us with the knowledge that we let them go without questioning how we got to that point and how we might reasonably avoid it in the future. Most people want to think about it so little that they don't question the system at all. They just offer firmer handshakes, flowerier speeches and more fervent thanks. And tomorrow they move on.