Most American families are untouched by U.S. wars

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: May 21, 2003

The number of people who personally experienced the sacrifice of war is dwindling so rapidly that most Americans now must consult a history book or talk to a grandparent to understand the meaning of Memorial Day.

Fewer than half of Americans personally know someone who died in combat or whose families suffered a war-related fatality, according to a survey of 1,010 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

"The younger generation hasn't faced war and does not fully understand it," said Bob Wallace, a highly decorated ex-Marine twice wounded during the Vietnam War's bloody Tet Offensive. "But the recent events in the war on terrorism show, I think, that Memorial Day is not just a nice day to go shopping."

In the survey, 40 percent answered "yes" when asked, "Do you, personally, know anyone who has died in any of America's wars?" Twenty-seven percent said at least one member of their family, either recently or in past generations, has died in combat while serving in the U.S. military.

There is a deep generational divide in these numbers. Elderly Americans are three times more likely to personally know someone who has died in a war than are young adults.

"This is caused, particularly, by World War II when there was such a large percentage of people who were serving in the military. At its height, we had 16 million men and women in uniform," said Kurt Piehler, director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee.

The casualty rate Americans have suffered during the past 60 years has been dropping dramatically. About 406,000 U.S. citizens died as a result of World War II, compared to about 37,000 during the Korean War and 58,000 in Vietnam. Fatalities during the two Persian Gulf wars are counted in the hundreds, not thousands.

The amount of sacrifice on the homefront _ civilians whose lives are unsettled by war _ also has declined. America's economic affluence now permits the nation to wage war with little or no financial disruption.

"The average American started paying income taxes for the first time during World War II," Piehler said. "Compared to the significant sacrifices Americans have made in the past, today we are asked to accept a tax cut during our war on terrorism."

Veterans around the nation want to ensure that younger Americans understand the sacrifices made by previous generations.

"We encourage local VFW members to go into the schools and talk to students about the sacrifices of war and what it means to die for your country," said Wallace, who is executive director of the Washington office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We are doing this constantly, not just around Memorial Day or Veterans Day, so that people will understand what has been done to keep our liberties."

The generations may have different perspectives on the sacrifices made in war, but they are united in support of America's past use of military force. Sixty-eight percent said they believe "America historically has been correct in most of its decision to go to war." A majority of each age group agreed with this sentiment.

The poll was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone May 4-18 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The poll has an overall 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.

Further details of the poll and the operations of the Scripps Survey Research Center can be found at

(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is professor emeritus at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.)