November is a month that’s long been set aside for recollection and remembrance. Every year for over a century now, in America at least, the primary focus of our civic attention this month is on military veterans and their families. While those who have served the nation in uniform—and who’ve put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the peace of mind of all the rest of us—have always been deeply appreciated, if not celebrated, by their fellow citizens, who exactly it is that we’ve been celebrating as “veterans” has changed quite drastically since those early post-American Revolution years. 

Only since 1990 have the soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen (women), “Coasties,” and now Space Force Guardians who are serving on active duty been counted as veterans. In the 1930s, military service only counted toward official veteran status if one had served in a time of war or on a military expedition (such as the Spanish-American War or the Mexican Expedition). Prior to that period, one had to have served during an explicit time of war to be considered a veteran. This proves that one of the constant dynamics in the citizen-to-soldier, soldier-back-to-citizen historical evolution has been how the political and social understanding of the military veteran is inextricably linked to the ever-changing redefining of military service over the centuries. 

That story is a long one and documenting those changes makes for a complex account. Over the last year, I’ve tried to present digestible pieces of this larger narrative to our IWF readers, in order to highlight some of the challenges in formulating good policy for the veteran population. Getting away from more philosophical explorations for the moment, here’s a new accounting of veteran status, this time courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau. (I’ve also indulged in a more skeptical take on the lacunae in the Census Bureau’s accounting—or lack thereof—of veterans.) 

History of Veterans Data on the U.S. Census

Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau published a graphic highlighting just how the U.S. Government has counted veterans for census-related purposes over time. It charts when the U.S. census did and didn’t attempt to assess the veteran population and for what purposes: frequently, the interest or need to know who our veterans are and how many we have is a direct outcome of passing (or lobbying to pass) large-scale benefits and pension legislation for them. The graphic thus visualizes how the definition of veteran has expanded from applicability to a small subset of those who’ve worn the nation’s (or colony’s) uniform to today: applicability for just about anyone who has served even just a few days in Boot Camp. 

On theme for the reflection that this month calls for is how this one chart by the U.S. Census Bureau shines a light on a progressive acceptance of (special) government benefits for the portion of citizens who’ve defended their fellow civilians in the actual dangers of wartime (when everyone practically saw frontline combat) to those who are simply willing to wear the uniform and volunteer to do so when their peers do not (today, less than 10% in the military are even designated as combat arms, an even smaller percentage of which see any actual fighting). What does this tell us about our evolving understanding of civic rights and duties? Of the role of government? Or even economics? 

Veterans, how we think about their prior military service, and how we measure and define what constitutes service to the nation, it turns out is a rich and complex mirror through which our American nation as a whole can understand our evolving understanding of democratic citizenship.