Reminder: The cost of war is borne by a small fraction of the population

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exacted a brutal toll on those who served, with a recent Washington Post-Kaiser survey of veterans finding an emotional cost that was far more widespread than previously recognized. Half of veterans said they knew a fellow service member who had attempted or committed suicide, while more than 1.4 million of the 2.6 million who served said they feel disconnected from civilian life.

There’s another aspect of this toll that is worth remembering: Because the number of Americans who served in these two wars is relatively small, the universe of people directly affected also makes up a relatively small portion of the population. And since people who served are more likely to be connected to other veterans or service members, the cost of war — from deaths and injuries sustained overseas to the difficult recoveries and transitions back to civilian life endured when they come home — can be felt more by the same portion of the population who have more veterans and military members in their families and social circles.

Nearly four in 10 veterans said all or most of their friends served in the military, more than double the national rate. In addition, more than 70 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had parents or grandparents in the military, which is 9 percentage points greater than the general public. (There’s a painful related number here: Veterans from a military family were also more likely than other veterans to know someone who committed suicide.)

That a small sliver of the population served is not breaking news by any means. A Pew Research Center report in 2012 noted that just 0.5 percent of the American population had served on active duty at any given time during a decade of war; the number was 9 percent at the height of World War II.

pew - military particip 1940-2010

Still, the gulf between those who served (and are connected with others who served) and the rest of the population is an important point worth reiterating again and again for people trying to understand the experiences of veterans, experiences that remain unfamiliar to a massive portion of this country.

Here’s more from the Post-Kaiser survey of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans:

For recent veterans, a legacy of pride and pain.

Key findings from the poll.

Interactive poll results and more on how the survey was conducted.

Poll details: The Post-Kaiser survey was conducted over the phone from Aug. 1 to Dec. 15, 2013, among a random national sample of 819 active duty military and veterans who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus five percentage points. 

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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Mark Berman | April 7