On Tuesday, people in corners across this nation will stop, pause, and remember the events of September 11, 2001. Seventeen years have passed since that horrible day, and the world we live in is in many ways drastically different from the one we woke up to that Fall Tuesday morning. Sadly, many Americans will note the anniversary only in passing, if at all.
Those who barely blink at the anniversary may include members of the incoming Class of 2022, knee deep in the chaos of their first weeks at college. Here’s something for those of us who remember 9/11 vividly to chew on—this class of first year students will be the last one to enter college whose membership is made up mostly of students born when the Twin Towers were still standing.
In many ways it is a distinction without a difference—a student starting college this month is no more or less connected to those events than a member of the class above or below them. They are no more or less likely to know someone who has served or to have served themselves. And, most importantly, they are no more or less connected to the consequences of those attacks, including the War in Afghanistan, a military action that spans almost their entire lifetime, but one that to most of them feels as far away from their quads, dorms and classrooms as the moon.
This is a problem. And I don’t want to just beat up on college students—it is a problem that most Americans feel so disconnected from a war their nation has been fighting for almost two decades, and from their fellow Americans who fight it.
The switch to an all-volunteer force more than 40 years ago has proven an overwhelmingly positive decision—in most ways. Like all major policy decisions, however, there have been unintended consequences. And the largest of these is the way in which self-selection into the military has fueled an ever-widening divide between the military and civilian worlds.
This divide is often discussed in terms of appreciation—and that aspect is important. We must always be mindful of those who serve and the families who serve with them—they have chosen a life of sacrifice so the rest of us don’t have to. But what worries me more than recognition is the practical impacts of the divide, especially when it comes to making and executing policy.
That is why I am so concerned, as we remember 9/11, about the chasm between the 18-year-olds we deploy to Afghanistan and those who are kicking off their college careers. In the last 40 years, college campuses have become more diverse in almost every way you can imagine. They are more balanced in terms of gender, more representative in terms of ethnic and cultural background, and more accessible to Americans from different economic circumstances. The one way in which they are less diverse is in the number of students who serve or know someone who serves in the military.
This is important because the college students of today are the policy makers and voters of tomorrow. Policy making is an extension of policy makers’ understanding of the world—they bring their experiences, empathies, and relationships to the table. Because of that, diversity in policy makers is a good thing—it strengthens the final product because the policies are better informed in terms of their real-world impacts and consequences.
But if we don’t have policy makers at the table with a personal connection to the military then we lose that perspective when it is most crucial—when we are setting policies that literally have life-and-death consequences. A faraway war stays faraway when you don’t know anyone who is serving.
There is reason for hope: we should all be proud of the record number of veterans from all political stripes running for office this year, and take solace in the fact that their presence will help create better informed policies for our armed forces and strengthen our foreign policy overall.
But we must do more. The all-volunteer force has been a success, but it has also eroded the connective tissue between our military and the citizenry. So we must be intentional about closing that gap.
This year at Princeton University, where I am lucky enough to work, we reinstated our transfer program for the first time in two decades, expressly with the goal of allowing in more veterans who may have accumulated college credit during their time in uniform. The numbers we were able to admit this year were small in the grand scheme of things, but every one of those veterans’ presence on our campus increases the chances that all of our students will gain a better understanding of, and connection to, the wars that their government is fighting on their behalf.
I hope every American, including every college student, will take some time for reflection this Tuesday. There have been so many who have sacrificed in the shadow of 9/11, and they deserve the respect of remembrance. But I also hope that all of us will use this anniversary to take up the charge of figuring out how to close the civilian-military divide. Closing that gap through creative and intentional action is one of the best ways we can honor all of those who have given so much—and it is the best way to make sure that their perspective has a seat at the table when policy decisions are made.