America's Military Population

By Segal, David R.; Segal, Mady Wechsler | Population Bulletin, December 2004 | Go to article overview

America's Military Population


Segal, David R., Segal, Mady Wechsler, Population Bulletin


The American military has been viewed as a form of national service, an occupation, a profession, a workplace, a calling, an industry, and a set of internal labor markets.1 Military service has touched most American families; nearly 26 million Americans living today have served in the military-24 million of these veterans are men, 12 million are over age 60. But today's active-duty military is very different from the military of 30 and 50 years ago, when the military relied on the draft for personnel and warfare required more troops. The all-volunteer military is more educated, more married, more female, and less white than the draft-era military. And debates about the future size, structure, and composition of the U.S. military have assumed new prominence in the political landscape, especially as the country faces new security threats. Today's military is also grappling with such social issues as the inclusion of gays, the role of women, the well-being of military families, and the transition back into civilian life.2 The specter of a new military draft-although unlikely to occur-has generated congressional activity and has grabbed the attention of young Americans. Such issues did not concern Americans for most of U.S. history, but are common today.

This Population Bulletin will focus on these issues with regard to the 1.4 million active-duty uniformed personnel currently serving in the four military branches of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and their 1.9 million dependents. This Bulletin addresses core demographic issues regarding the military population. Demography is the study of the size, distribution, and composition of a population, and focuses on such population processes as fertility (additions to the population), mortality (subtractions from the population), and migration (population mobility). This report examines the size, distribution, and composition of the American military population, plus additions to (recruitment), departures from (retirement and other separations), and mobility of that population through reassignments.

The armed forces did not become a major institutional presence in the United States until the 20th century and did not become a major factor in the American occupational structure and labor force until the last quarter of that century. The United States was founded with a militia tradition of citizen-soldiers, and a cultural aversion to the excesses of the peacetime standing army of England's King James II.3 A national army was raised during the American Revolution, but in 1783, after the United States won independence, the Congress discharged the Continental Army that had defeated the British, except for 80 soldiers retained to guard the military stores at West Point and Fort Pitt, plus a proportionate number of officers, none above the rank of captain. This congressional action set a precedent for a military force, composed exclusively of men, that was to be mobilized during wartime through calling up the militia, recruiting volunteers, and occasional conscription, and was to be demobilized during peacetime. This pattern persisted until the mid-20th century.

The Military in 20th-Century America

For most of U.S. history, less than 1 percent of the population served in the military, except for brief periods when the country was at war (see Figure 1). There were notable surges in the relative size of the force during the first half of the 19th century for the War of 1812 and the Mexican War of 1846-1848, but the annual military participation ratio (MPR)-the percentage of the total resident population serving in the active-duty military4-did not approach 3 percent of the population until the U.S. Civil War in the mid-1860s. More than 1 million men, mobilized largely by militia call-ups and conscription, served under arms between 1861 and 1865. The MPR then declined again until the First World War, when almost 3 percent of the population-almost 3 million men-served. …

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