The Unequal Burden of US Wars

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Winter 2017

By Dick Dahl

Ever since the launch of Project Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the United States has been sending an uninterrupted flow of soldiers to fight in foreign lands. To date, some 7,000 of them have died and at least 60,000 have been injured. However, as University of Minnesota Law School Assistant Professor Francis Shen points out, “Any tourist who comes here wouldn’t know we’re at war.”

Why is this? Shen thinks it might be due, in part, to how the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been borne primarily by working-class Americans and those who come from communities of lower socioeconomic status.

Shen’s primary academic interest is neuroscience and the law, but he’s focused much of his recent research on the societal impact of the nation’s reliance on an all-volunteer fighting force. His latest published work, “Invisible Inequality: The Two Americas of Military Sacrifice,” coauthored with Boston University Political Science Professor Douglas Kriner in the spring issue of the University of Memphis Law Review, further advances his argument that an all-volunteer military exacts greater sacrifice from the nation’s poorer regions and populations. The research also concludes that Americans are, by and large, unaware of the extent to which this is true.

For their recent study, Shen and Kriner conducted a series of investigations—including analysis of over 500,000 American combat casualties from World War II through Afghanistan—and coupled that information with socioeconomic data to document that post-9/11 wars are working-class wars. They found that in World War II, for example, the median family income of high-casualty communities and low-casualty ones was roughly equal: $21,121 and $20,828, respectively. But in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the disparity widened to $41,741 and $53,086. They also found that counties with lower education and income levels had higher percentages of their residents wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shen argues that while we may be generally aware that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are carrying a disproportionate military burden, most people aren’t sufficiently cognizant of how big and multidimensional that burden really is. According to Shen, their sacrifice only begins with the statistics of death and injury. He argues that oftentimes soldiers must deal with other problems when they return home, such as psychological trauma and lack of nearby resources.

Shen and Kriner first explored this social disparity in a 2010 book, The Casualty Gap, which examined military death rates and found increasing inequality in American war deaths since World War II. Shen says that after that book was published, they realized they had more work to do in examining data about who is wounded. The result was the Memphis Law Review article.

Shen’s interest in disparate military sacrifice dovetails with an interest in neuroscience. He is the director of the Shen Neurolaw Lab, which conducts research to enable lawyers, courts, and policymakers to better understand neuroscience. According to Shen, neuroscience has been advancing the idea that mental conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder are injuries that need treatment just as a physical injury does. But in the case of soldiers returning home to a poor community, that treatment may not be available.

“There’s a bit of a double whammy for those coming back, and it’s this: Recovery from things like PTSD, depression, et cetera, depends critically, the evidence suggests, on social networks and the strength of social resources that one has. You’re farther away from the VA hospital, you have fewer trained professionals, and frankly you’re forgotten because you don’t look any different than anyone else. You’re not missing a leg, you don’t have a big cast. At some point people say, ‘Aren’t you over that by now?’"

The problem, he says, is that while mental injury is real, it can often be hard to prove. “However, the way we should not respond is: ‘People with broken arms and legs have a real injury; people with PTSD and depression don’t have a real injury.’”

In their article, Shen and Kriser segue from analysis to advocacy, arguing that society has an obligation to its soldiers. “Ignoring inequality in military sacrifice is both morally comforting and politically beneficial. But it is at odds with empirical reality, and, most importantly, with our American ideals of shared sacrifice.”

Shen contends that issues about military sacrifice need to be more visible and vigorously debated. “When weighing the cost of war, we need to be front and center in that conversation. We need to talk about what we expect the real human cost to be and that it’s not just lives lost, that it includes all these brain injuries.” Shen says he is not advocating a return to military conscription. He does believe, however, that members of the military deserve better. “Let’s acknowledge the inequality and let’s provide everything we can to provide support for those who are willing to take a special role for this country. We don’t give enough credence to the real sacrifice that’s being made and the real long-term cost potential for some of these individuals.”


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