After the American Civil War, organizations of veterans, of both the Union and Confederate armies, appeared. In 1914, just when these were fading, World War I came along, and the current veterans organizations, like the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and American Legion, appeared. These groups grew even more powerful after World War II, when over 16 million vets returned to civilian life. Conscription kept the American armed forces larger than ever before in peacetime, and that kept the veterans lobby up to strength, and growing. The end of the draft in the early 1970s reduced the flow of veterans, for fewer troops were now serving for longer periods. After the Cold War ended, the armed forces shrank by a third, and the World War II vets began to die off in large numbers. The veterans population was rapidly shrinking. The golden age of the veterans was passing. But vets are still a potent group. There are about 25 million of them. That's 8.3 percent of the population, versus nearly 15 percent after World War II. Moreover, the largest segment of the veterans population is no longer the World War II vets (only about 3.9 million remain), but those of the Vietnam-era (8.2 million, nearly a third of the total.)
What has hurt the veterans lobby the most has been changes in life-style. Veterans no longer join veterans organizations in great numbers. This began during the Vietnam war period, where many new vets were leaving the military with bad feelings, which was partly a reflection of the divisive effect the war had on America. But after that, American culture changed in other ways, one of them being fewer people joining social organizations. Moreover, the composition of the veteran population is changing. While women comprised five percent of World War II vets, they are 16 percent of more recent veterans. Currently, seven percent of all vets are women. Some sixteen percent of vets are minorities, 60 percent of those are black, with a growing number of Hispanics.
While the tremendous lobbying clout of the veterans organizations is declining, vets as a voting block are still formidable. Veterans still have common interests, especially medical care, and other benefits related to injuries picked up while in service. Currently, the governments spends about $60 billion a year on veterans benefits. Veterans will mobilize to look after that. And there is still the Internet, which is a formidable tool veterans use to mobilize on short notice.
For over a century, veterans organizations have been a major ally of the armed forces, providing the troops with a potent political boost in struggles for money and benefits. But the current generation of vets are not as interested in such organizations, and as a result, the clout of the veterans is fading.