The danger of civilian apathy

Members of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Irwin prepare to offer a 21 gun salute to conclude a Veterans Dayceremony at Hesperia Lake Park in Hesperia, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (James Quigg/The Daily Press via AP)

Every year, Veterans Day serves as an essential reminder of the sacrifices that enlisted men and women in our military have made for our country and our freedom. However, outside of Veterans Day, and even on the day itself, many have commented on a growing disinterest in current military conflicts among American civilians, especially younger citizens. This seems to be the result of a widening gap between civilian and military personnel in the United States.

Veteran and high school teacher Tyler Bonin described an example of this issue in a piece he wrote for “The Atlantic” about the disinterest he experienced when teaching his students about conflicts in the Middle East. Bonin is a veteran of the Iraq War and expected questions or at least interest in the conflict that lasted for nearly half of his students’ lives, but he found neither. Not only is this disinterest disappointing, but it is also dangerous for younger generations to be not only unaware but also uninterested in the conflicts which have shaped their lives and in which so many men and women have died.

Of course, the fault does not completely lie with the students; this is a growing problem that has numerous complicated aspects. First of all, the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan lasted from 2001 to 2011, which makes up the majority of current high school students’ lives. Therefore, they cannot even remember a time before 9/11 or before this war, so the conflict has become a part of everyday life that is easily overlooked. They cannot relate to people of Bonin’s generation, who may have enlisted after the attacks on September 11, or even those only a few years older than them who witnessed the attacks and were able to watch the war develop. Instead, the primary concern today seems to be a series of ongoing terrorist attacks organized by ISIS and other parties.

Furthermore, the war was not and is not publicized in a way conducive to stimulating interest in it. Unlike previous wars in American history, many of the decisions that led to the war in the Middle East were swept under the rug. Additionally, the war was treated as an everyday occurrence, and unlike the Vietnam War, which was heavily publicized to American civilians on television. This portrayal may have made the war in the Middle East seem insignificant. Part of this difference is due to the news coverage of the two wars. For example, during the Vietnam War, war coverage could be found on almost any channel, while according to Bonin’s article, the conflict in the Middle East comprised only one percent of news coverage in 2010.

Vietnam coverage also increased interest in following the war on television; between 1950 and 1960 the number of American households that had a television increased by 75 percent, and again to 95 percent in 1968. Part of this is perhaps due to the fact that the Vietnam War was the first war to have televised news coverage, while modern wars seem to simply follow the same general broadcast formula.

Regardless of the causes of this disinterest, Bonin is right to say that a generation that is apathetic toward American military conflicts leads to dangerous military politics. If students do not take interest in conflicts that take so many lives and require so many sacrifices, then they may not understand the full implications of what it means to go to war as a nation. They will become even more disconnected with enlisted men and women who must become active participants in these wars every day and cannot show the same apathy. They certainly will not be aware of the reasons that motivate the decision to go to war.

But these students, and more broadly, all Americans, are the public voice that can change military decisions, which is a powerful voice, as we saw during the Vietnam War. Students must not be apathetic toward current conflicts if they are to use this voice wisely and drive our government to make educated decisions about American involvement in wars.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.