For Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the years before World War I, one of the many motivations to leave was the prospect of service in the Czar’s army, which often amounted to a death sentence. Only a generation later, people in uniform exterminated most of the Jews who had remained behind. It should come as no surprise that this sad history is frequently cited as the cause of the low representation of Jews in the American armed forces.
So recent was the Holocaust and so pervasive was the notion that military service was not for Jews that when I joined the Army in 1966, the perception was that we became soldiers only if we were forced to do so. In the minds of both Jews and gentiles, the prevalent stereotype was, and still is, that Jews are doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors — everything except soldiers.
To be sure, Jews are under-represented in uniform: We are significantly less likely to serve than other Americans. But single-factor analysis can be misleading, and there is more at work here than merely the agony of the Jewish experience.
Jewish under-representation in our nation’s armed forces is, in large part, a consequence of our community’s socio-economic profile. The Jewish focus on learning makes Jews extremely competitive in any society that values education. After the end of the Second World War, quotas limiting Jewish enrollments disappeared in America, and Jews flocked to institutions of higher education and to professions requiring college and graduate degrees.
Of course, enlisting in the armed forces and having a university degree do not have to be mutually exclusive, but in the contemporary United States they often seem to be. We have separated the notions of service and sacrifice from those of economic success and social mobility, and this divorce threatens to become permanent.
While the tendency to opt out of military service is particularly evident among the college-educated, the phenomenon is much broader. During World War II nearly every American family claimed at least one person in uniform, and more than half a million Jews served. Today, by contrast, few Americans — of any religion — serve in the armed forces. You could knock on 100 doors before you find a household that has a member in active service.
We love and extol the troops, but many Americans cross paths with them only because, from time to time, we see them in airports or on our television sets. We like having an all-volunteer military because we don’t have to volunteer.
During the war in Vietnam there were riots in the streets over the draft, and Lyndon Johnson was chased from office as a result. Today we have been fighting a war for more than a decade, a war that every poll says is wildly unpopular. If there were a draft, there would be riots today, too.
We are comfortable outsourcing our national defense to a small number of people who are willing or enticed to enlist, but there is danger in creating a gap between those few who serve and the mass of people who benefit from the service.
We are much more likely to deploy military forces when we and our children are not among them. In the parlance of the street gambler, the American people have no skin in the game. Furthermore, when armed force is the default instrument of foreign policy, the other instruments languish, and it is no coincidence that the quality of our diplomacy is very poor and that our national security strategy is fragmented and ineffectual.
No matter how often we have ventured onto foreign soil in pursuit of objectives real and imagined, in recent times we have done so with military forces that are ours — but not of us. And yes, Jews do not serve with much frequency in the armed forces. But neither does anybody else.
Jack Jacobs, a retired Army colonel and recipient of the Medal of Honor for his service during the Vietnam War, is the McDermott Chair of Humanities and Public Affairs at the United States Military Academy. He is the author of “If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need” (Berkley, 2008).