What the world owes the 30 million

Sparta's 300 have been renowned for two millenia. How widely known is the impact of the 30 million American troops deployed overseas since 1950?

Peter Morgan / AP / File
Marines and sailors line the deck of the U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima as it passes the Statue of Liberty in New York on May 26. The lifespan and quality of life have improved in countries with a strong American military presence, thanks to the 30 million service men and women who have served overseas in the past 60 years.

I tend to feel awkward wishing U.S. military veterans a Happy Veterans Day, despite a sense of admiration and pride in their character and accomplishments, because as a veteran myself it feels too self-congratulatory. So forgive me for not posting on 11/11/10 what I am posting here today.

American men and women in uniform have made the world a better place. When I think of wounded warriors especially, perhaps the young Army private who lost his legs to an IED now recuperating in a military hospital, wondering if it was all in vain, I hope he gets this message. No, your time in uniform, your sacrifice, and the sacrifices of our comrades in arms who have died, none of it was in vain. I write these words with confidence because I have spent the last few years examining the data on the impact of American forces abroad. The impact is astounding.

Since 1950, the U.S. has deployed over 30 million troops overseas. Technically, we should call this 30 million troop-years: one troop in one country for one year is a troop-year. Ancient Sparta is remebered by history for the bravery of its 300 warriors fighting at Thermopylae. I often wonder if Americans will be remembered by history for the bravery of its 30,000,000. Here is why (from the abstract of a paper I am in the process of revising):

For over six decades, the U.S. military has shaped international economic development, notably by way of 30 million U.S. troop-year deployments since 1950. Worldwide, life expectancy increased by 10 years between 1970 and the present. The mortality rate of children dropped from 132 per 1000 live births to 55. The number of telephone lines per capita quadrupled from 48 to 196 per thousand. And since 1990, the average country score on the human development index (HDI) increased by 7 percentage points. In each case, the improvement was faster in countries with a heavy U.S. troop presence and slower in countries with zero U.S. troop presence. These relationships stem from a very large dataset on U.S. deployments across the globe from 1950 to the present matched with World Bank data on indicators of social well-being since 1970 across 148 countries. The positive relationship between American forces and social development holds in econometric regressions even when controlling for initial income levels and initial social indicator levels.

Here is a chart showing the increase in life expectancy, in years, from 1990-2007 with countries sorted by the number of U.S. troops hosted during 1990-2009 and by level of development (as defined by the World Bank).

Annual U.S. Troop Presence High income countries Middle income countries Low income countries
Heavy (250+) 4.1 4.4 4.5
Light (5-250) 3.9 2.5 3.0
Nil (0-5) 2.7 0.5 2.6

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