Jan. 8, 2020
Nearly a quarter of Americans have never experienced the U.S. in a time of peace
By Philip Bump
Neither of my sons has ever lived in the United States when the country hasn’t been at war.
To be fair, they’re young; Thomas, the older one, is 3. But it’s not only toddlers and infants who have never seen an America not at war. No one born after 2001 has lived in the United States when it has been at peace. Meaning, as was noted last year, that a number of Americans are now old enough to serve in the conflict in Afghanistan, which began before they were born.
About 77.7 million Americans, 24 percent of the country’s population, are age 18 or younger (applying the most recent Census Bureau population-by-age data to 2019). For an additional 26 million, the country has been at war for at least three-quarters of their lives; for 58 percent of Americans, the country has been at war for at least half their lives.
(In an era in which military engagements are launched without formal declarations of war, we’re including only major and/or extended conflicts. In the interest of estimating the extent to which Americans have experienced war, we’ve expanded pertinent dates, including birth years, to encompass full years.)
As you can see above, even the oldest Americans have seen the country at war for a significant percentage of their lives, thanks in large part to the extended and ongoing Afghanistan war. The oldest American is Hester Ford, born in August 1905. The United States has been at war for more than a third of her life.
Again, that’s largely a function of the conflict in Afghanistan. Had that lasted only a year, the United States would have been at war for less than a fifth of her life. Vietnam would have been the most extensive engagement in which the United States would have been involved.
This can also be illustrated using a pie chart:
That illustration can serve as something of a key for the one below, showing the extent to which those born in any given year have experienced a United States at war. We began with Ford’s 1905.
Ford and others who were alive for World War II or Vietnam would probably note that, while the United States is currently at war, it doesn’t seem as immediate as it did then. The scale of World War II and the draft that sent young men to their deaths in Vietnam were immediately tangible in a way that the more limited ongoing conflict in Afghanistan isn’t to many Americans.
Which is why it’s worth noting that the conflict continues nonetheless. War isn’t — or shouldn’t be — just an ongoing presence in the background, something that’s simply there over the course of our lives. For most of those 78 million Americans, though, that’s exactly what it has been.