WASHINGTON — Ask Navy corpsman Adam Shepherd what he wants Americans to know about his service in Iraq and he says it boils down to one thing. "Just don't forget that we sacrificed a lot to be out here," says the medic, stationed at Camp Taqaddum, Iraq.
It's a sentiment that many servicemen and women express. Five years after President Bush declared war on Islamic extremism, the military has lost 3,599 troops and spent $503 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet unlike past wars, even unpopular ones, most Americans have contributed little directly. Tire and paper drives of World War II are a dim memory. An increasingly narrow slice of the population serves in the military.
Now, a growing number of observers question whether Americans should make some kind of sacrifice for what Bush himself calls the "decisive ideological struggle of our time." Despite the billions spent on defense, which represents 4 percent of the gross domestic product, many inside the administration and conservatives outside it believe it's time to spend more. But raising defense spending at a time when Americans are frustrated with the Iraq war is problematic. It also raises questions for the growing number of Americans who don't support the president's war strategy. So what should citizens do – if anything – to support US troops?
Aside from sending care packages or volunteering to help those in uniform, Americans seem to have no ready answers.
All this comes at a time when lawmakers, analysts, and many current and former military officials blame Bush for failing to mobilize the nation by calling on Americans to join the military or creating national service programs or even raising additional resources to help pay for the war effort. Instead, he has doled out tax cuts and suggested Americans can be true patriots by keeping the economy going strong.
Says one retired general: "Marines are at war, America is at the mall."
The president has also asked for patience as challenges to the war effort have mounted – a different kind of sacrifice that the public and Congress seems increasingly unwilling to make.
Americans would be willing to sacrifice in real ways if they were asked, says Fred Kagan, a senior analyst at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. "It's one of the worst failures of the administration, the weakness of its efforts to make it possible for the American people to support its troops."
Soon, Mr. Kagan and other strong supporters of going the distance in Iraq will release a report that among other things will explain why mobilizing the nation in support of the war on terrorism has become so critical – and offer practical ways on how to do it.
Military recruiters have their own solution – enlist. Since the military became an all-volunteer force in 1973, an increasing number of servicemen and women have come from lower-income households.
With few exceptions, the conspicuous absence of the social elite – including celebrities, the upper class, and children of politicians – in the military creates the impression that this war isn't worth fighting, says Charles Moskos, noted military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "This is the no-sacrifice war."
But if it's not possible to enlist, some say the next best thing is money.
Enter Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, who last Thursday proposed a new tax to raise money for troops. The "Support Our Troops Tax" would raise $50 billion per year over the next five years to pay for defense and veterans benefits and services. The proposal, coming in the form of an amendment to the fiscal 2008 budget, is what Senator Lieberman calls the need for a "shared sacrifice."
"It's my way of making a larger point that our military went to war but our nation didn't go to war," he says. "And as long as that is true, we are not going to have the success and the victory we need."
The senator concedes that taxes are unpopular and that levying one on an already unpopular war may not go over well with the American public or fellow lawmakers. "There may be other ways to do this, but we haven't been creative about it," he says.
Other observers say the problem is not that Americans haven't been asked to sacrifice, it's that they're indifferent to sacrifice.
The burden of the war on terrorism has fallen exclusively on the nation's young – the current generation known as the Millennials, born beginning in the early 1980s and known for their penchant for conformity, public service, and duty, says William Strauss, a prominent generational historian and author of 10 books. [Editor's note: The original version inaccurately described when the Millennial generation began.]
He says it's difficult to convince other Americans to sacrifice because so many of them are baby boomers, who grew up during Vietnam and typically don't trust institutions like the military. Thus, they are less inclined to want to make a sacrifice in the same way their parents did during World War II or their sons and daughters are doing now, Mr. Strauss says.
Political calculations aside, that generational mind-set may make it difficult for the nation's leaders to ask for people to make a sacrifice – especially during an unpopular war, he adds. Still, the war on terrorism presents baby boomers with a dilemma.
"It's one of the questions for boomers; as a generation, they need to reflect on whether they are looking for a free pass through history," says Strauss, "and to see what their legacy will be as elders."
The memory of 9/11 is "a little distant now," says Strauss, who believes it may take another dramatic event before the country is truly galvanized and therefore capable of true sacrifice. "If we have that, the nature of our nation's response could surprise us."
•Tom Peter contributed to this story.