New Army of the Unemployed
Proponents of the all volunteer military need to open up their wallets
by Jane Burns
Last week, as the House and Senate voted on non-binding resolutions opposing the sending of more troops to Iraq, many politicians felt obliged to express their support for the troops already there. That was nice, but if they really mean it, they should give the troops a pay hike and boost their educational benefits. Money says “I love you.” And while there are many reasons why young men and women volunteer to risk death or dismemberment on the battlefield, money, dare we say, may be chief among them.
It is necessary to watch one’s language in such discussions. William Arkin, who writes an on-line military affairs column for The Washington Post, demonstrated that recently when he used the word “mercenary” in a post critical of active troops who told an NBC news crew they expected Americans to support the war: just supporting them wasn’t enough. “But it is the United States, and the recent NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary—oops, sorry, volunteer—force that thinks it is doing the dirty work,” he wrote. After thousands of emails poured in, many hateful and ugly as only anonymous on-line comments can be, some listing Washington Post advertisers to be boycotted, the Post’s ombudsman wrote a column distancing her paper from Arkin, who disingenuously apologized: “Mercenary, of course, is an insult and pejorative, and it does not accurately describe the condition of the American soldier today. I sincerely apologize to anyone in the military who took my words literally.”
Explaining that he had used the “M” word to purposely inflame, surely Arkin recalled the infamous exchange between General William Westmoreland and economist Milton Friedman, who successfully championed the volunteer army. Testifying before President Richard Nixon's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force, Westmoreland supported the draft, saying he did not want to command "an army of mercenaries." Friedman, a member of the 15-person commission, easily got the best of the general: "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general. We are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher."
We are allowed a mixture of motives in choosing how we earn, but to do something just for the money, unless we are desperate or work in financial services, is venal. And yet frank examinations of what it takes today to muster a voluntary military to fight the war on terrorism do not flinch from the primacy of money. Timed to Veterans Day last November, the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute—funded by the Annie E. Casey, Ford and W.K. Kellogg foundations to study rural families and communities—issued a report (pdf) finding that in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers from rural areas are dying at higher rates than those from big cities and suburbs because enlistment rates are higher in rural areas. And that, in turn, authors William O’Hare and Bill Bishop found, is because of fewer “good job” opportunities in rural America. “Industries that have traditionally sustained rural people and places—farming, timber, mining, fishing and manufacturing—are employing fewer workers than they have in the past,” they wrote. “Communities distant from urban areas and with few scenic amenities are struggling with low incomes, a low skill labor force, limited access to services, and weak infrastructure.” Enlistment in the Armed Forces, they concluded, “can provide rural youth with a path to greater future opportunities that includes gaining new skills and learning about other places and cultures.” They’re far from describing rural enlistees as “mercenary,” but the picture of economic opportunities (“new skills”), otherwise not available or affordable, is clear.
While rural youths may look to the military for job skills and training, those on the college track may be attracted by the promise of lightened loan burdens. In an article entitled “Saving the All-Volunteer Force,” published in the May-June 2005 issue of Military Review, Dr. Charles C. Moskos—a former draftee and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Northwestern University, a designated Honored Patriot by the Selective Service System and recipient of the Distinguished Service Award, the Army’s highest civilian decoration—promoted the concept of short tours of active duty with money for school. “A definite, albeit limited, market exists of college graduates who might volunteer for military service if the active-duty commitment is only 15 months and comes with generous educational benefits,” Moskos wrote. In an Oct. 2004 survey of Northwestern students, he reported, 11 percent said serving as prison guards in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo would be a “very likely option” if their student loans were forgiven and they received G.I. Bill benefits for graduate school. (Italics mine.) Moskos had done his homework: “The average college graduate today leaves with about $19,000 in debt,” he wrote. “Forty percent of college graduates state they intend to go on to some form of graduate study. A higher percentage of youth now go on to graduate school than went to undergraduate schools during the post-World War II years of the original G.I. Bill. The average debt of a student who attends graduate school is $38,000.”
This did not sound like the Charles Moskos who, shortly after 9/11, co-authored an article entitled “Now Do You Believe We Need a Draft?” in the November 2001 edition of The Washington Monthly magazine. “It's a shame that it has taken terrorist attacks to awaken us to the reality of our shared national fate,” he and Paul Glastris, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, wrote. “We should use this moment to rebuild institutions like the draft that will keep us awake to this reality even as the memory of the attacks fades,” they rhapsodized.
Yes, there were moments after 9/11 when we did briefly believe in a “shared national fate.” But when the Federal Reserve chopped interest rates, real estate became the shared national pastime. Now, as the housing bubble deflates and threatens the entire economy, for many the debt burden is so high, the tight-rope of our access to affordable health care so perilous, the cost of post-high school education relative to family income and savings so great, that if we are not in it for the money, we risk perishing. So why shouldn’t we have troops in it for the money? Let the training programs and the educational benefits be more generous and real, not misrepresented in the jargon and small print of today’s recruitment programs and enlistment agreements. Don’t call it a mercenary armed forces. But when our shared national fate has been monetized, we are all in it for the money.
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