Although statistics concerning the percentage of TV-news coverage that was devoted to Vietnam are limited, the fact that it was America’s first truly televised war speaks to its magnitude as a media event. Personal connections also rendered teenagers hyper-exposed to the war. Even though a minority of those who served in Vietnam were conscripted, the draft was still a salient aspect of the war, one of which families were all too aware. Many attempted to enlist in the National Guard simply to avoid the unknowns that came with conscription. By contrast, in 2010, when the war in Iraq reached its seven-year mark, just 1 percent of news coverage was dedicated to the conflict. And currently, the proportion of Americans having served in the U.S.’s longest-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stands at less than 1 percent of the total population, a proportion much smaller than previous conflicts, including Vietnam. Fewer families maintain connections to the military today than in previous eras, and this fact is especially pronounced among younger Americans; the younger you are, the less likely you are to know anyone who served in the armed forces.
Perhaps this means that war does not hold bearing on the lives of those young Americans who have not been touched by it in a personal, or at least visceral, manner. With no relatives or family friends having served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and with such little media exposure to the conflicts, many young people do not have any reference point for understanding the impact of war. Experts argue history education—let alone nuanced history education that encourages critical thinking—is a low priority for America’s public schools, and if that’s the case this flaw only exacerbates the problem. As does the reality, according to some critics, that many modern-day textbooks teach a highly biased account of the “War on Terror.”
What does this mean? America’s youth aren’t apathetic—rather, they’ve grown up during a war obscured by modern American culture. If one doesn’t care to look at the war, then he doesn’t have to. It’s easy to change the channel, skip over a Facebook post, or ignore a tweet. A person can support the troops without having to look at or contemplate the associated violence. It’s not indifference per se, but instead lack of context.
American society cannot continue to ignore the history of regions in which its military operates, or the outcomes of conflict itself. I want students to be engaged. I want them to understand that this event has far-reaching implications for their lives. If education is truly an investment in the future, then that education must involve addressing consequences of prolonged war. It is today’s students who will foot the bill for Iraq and Afghanistan when they become taxpayers. It is today’s students who are now—and will continue to be—exposed to an entirely new set of policies and institutions have been developed in the name of the “War on Terror.” Today’s students, for instance, will continue to grow up in an era of both ever-increasing electronic surveillance and reduction of privacy.