Monday, February 24, 2014

Military Monday (February 24, 2014): Military Service and Genealogy -- Past, Present and Future

As noted previously here at The Prism, 2014 marks the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I.  The "Great War" (sometimes referred to as "the war to end war") raged for four years -- from July 28, 1914 until November 11, 1918. It is said to be the fifth most deadly conflict in the history of the world with more than 9 million soldiers and sailors killed, but the deaths including civilian death from disease, starvation, and direct combat-related fatalities range from 15 million to 65 million. The war profoundly affected generations the world over, but it did not end war.

In genealogy, military service is accorded a significant place among the data points that every genealogy software application collects. In blogging it provides us all with an extremely popular and useful writing prompt such as "Military Monday" or some similar appellation.  Our military affects all of us -- directly or indirectly -- it always has and always will.  It is an important and even vital aspect of our national and world history, so it therefore is a part of the study of our genealogies. 

The military is a national necessity and thus it has both a demographic impact and an important economic expense, as this chart depicts for the United States from 1790 - 2006. 

The chart above provides us with an interesting -- if perhaps simplified -- snapshot of our military and economic history over a period of 216 years. At a glance, we can see that, as expected, the demands on our national productivity and wealth have mirrored demands on military service caused by war. The upward spikes represented by the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam indicate dramatic increases in the percentage of our population that enter military service and the concommitant surge in the percent of our GDP that goes to support the military and our war efforts. World War II stands out as a supreme effort by what has been dubbed "The Greatest Generation." Whereas prior and subsequent generation(s) have only had about 3% of the population in military service, the World War II generation(s) were called to service at almost three times that percentage (about 8.5%). At the same time, those generations were called to devote more than one third of the national productivity to supporting that war (about twice the demand for WWI).

The world remains a very volatile and dangerous place. As the chart below starkly indicates, the necessity and importance of military capability -- and the cost to this nation and the world -- are not likely to go away any time soon. The beginning of this century has unfortunately seen a near constant state of war for the United States; this is so even as the percentage of our population serving in the military has shrunk to about one half of 1% and the percentage of our GDP devoted to military expenditures has been on a steady decline since the early 1950s from about 13% of GDP to a 2006 rate of just over 4% of GDP.

For those of us involved in genealogy, the need to research military service records is not going away, but the nature and extent of that aspect of genealogy research is going to change in the future if these charts have anything to tell us! 

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Image of Flanders Field from

U.S. Military Personnel and Eexpenditures chart with permission granted at

Source for U.S. defense budget as compared to the next ten countries with the largest defense budgets in 2012 as shown in the chart.

For more information about the phrase "the war to end war," see  

For more information about World War I, see
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Copyright 2014, John D. Tew
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