By Other Means

Welfare State

Welfare State

F. Scott Fitzgerald, meticulous chronicler of American social class, famously confided to Ernest Hemingway that "the rich are different from the rest of us."

"Yes," was Hemingway’s laconic reply. "They have more money."

These days, the same could be said of the American military. Is the military different from the rest of us? Yes — it has more money.

This is true in a multitude of ways. Start with the obvious: if we view military spending as synonymous with defense spending (which it’s not, really, but pretend it is for now), boy, does it have more money. In 2011, the United States spent an estimated $768 billion on defense. Defense spending has gone down a tad since then — by the time I ended a two-year stint as counselor to the under secretary of defense for policy in summer 2011, we were beginning to speak glumly of the coming age of austerity. But the Pentagon budget still dwarfs pretty much everything else. The poor little State Department, for instance, shared a measly $55 billion with USAID and numerous other international programs.

This year, Congress and the White House are playing chicken over budget sequestration, which would force draconian cuts in military spending if Congress fails to avert it. But with politicians from both parties vying to demonstrate their love for all things Pentagon, it’s safe to assume that an eleventh hour compromise will be reached. The overall budget pie may shrink in the coming decade, but I’d bet my government Thrift Savings Account that DoD’s share of that pie will grow, while the State Department’s slice will get slimmer still.

And it’s not just from the perspective of national-level budgeting that the military has more money. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the average member of the military is paid better than 75 percent of civilian federal workers with comparable experience. Members of the military and their families can also lay claim to America’s most generous (though arguably unsustainable) social programs.

As the spouse of a career Army officer, I’m stunned by the range of available benefits. Health care? Free! Groceries? Military commissaries save military families roughly 30 percent over shopping in civilian stores. Education benefits? Career personnel can expect the military to finance additional higher education, and the post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to 36 months of benefits to veterans, amounting, in effect, to full tuition and fees for four academic years. (The education benefit is also transferable to dependents.)

Housing? Free on base and subsidized off-base (the housing allowance goes up with family size: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need). Pensions? After 20 years of service, military personnel can retire and immediately begin to receive, at the ripe old age of 40 or so, an annual pension equal to half their salary — for the rest of their lives. Anyone who thinks socialism failed in America has never spent time on a military base.

The generous benefits we give our military reflect the increasingly reflexive esteem in which we hold the armed forces. Despite (or because of) the dwindling number of Americans who serve or have a close relative who serves, support for the military has become America’s civil religion.

In part, this is because we recognize that with our all-volunteer military, the few truly do make sacrifices for the many. The punishing deployment tempo of the last decade — not to mention the thousands of military personnel killed and wounded — has wreaked havoc on military families and communities, even as most Americans live lives wholly untouched by terrorism and war.

But this can’t fully account for the disproportionate benefits we bestow on the military. Plenty of other Americans serve the nation in vital ways — consider public school teachers and nurses — and plenty of other Americans, from fishers to fire-fighters, have dangerous jobs. We don’t seem inclined to fling free health care and housing in the direction of teachers or fire-fighters, though.

Our willingness to throw money at the military, heedless of the need or cost, reflects a deep anxiety about the changing world we live in, combined with a general sense that the military is one of the few remaining functional public institutions.

The world scares us, and for good reason: Economic collapse, political stalemate, rising powers poised to eat our national lunch, global instability, terrorism, violence in the Middle East, dwindling fossil fuels, climate change…. It’s more than enough to leave you with the anxious sense that somebody needs to do something.

Americans look to the military to Fix Things. After all, the military can be relied on to go where it’s told and do what it’s asked to do. In 2012, 75 percent of Americans told Gallup that they had "a great deal" or "a lot" of confidence in the military. In contrast, only 37 percent had confidence in the presidency, and a mere 13 percent had confidence in Congress.

As a result, the military has become our go-to tool for fixing whatever happens to be broke. Today, we expect the military to plan agricultural programs in Afghanistan, protect us from cyber attack, sponsor radio talk-shows in Iraq, and run health clinics in Mali. We want the military to deliver humanitarian aid in Japan, collect human intelligence, and convince the Egyptian military to respect democracy. We want the military busy here at home, too, putting out summer forest fires, patrolling New York’s Grand Central Station, and stopping illegal immigration in Arizona.

More and more, we’re funding the military to take on a multitude of tasks that would once have been considered the province of civilian government agencies. Inevitably, this blurs the boundary of just what constitutes a military task and what constitutes a civilian task. Which in turn raises a deeper question: Should we view these developments as the militarization of American foreign policy (and, increasingly, of domestic policy as well)? Or is this phenomenon better understood as something different — as, perhaps, the civilianization of the military, or the metamorphosis of the military into something still unknown, in support of ever-murkier strategic aims?

To put the question a little differently, in today’s interconnected, globalized world — in which the lines between "war" and other kinds of "security threat" have blurred, in which it’s harder and harder to distinguish between battlefields and zones of peace, between foreign and domestic, between civilians and combatants — what exactly is the American military? More to the point, what’s it for? (And if the answer is, "everything," then what happens to our longstanding assumptions about civilian control of the military?)

Unfortunately, even as Americans ask the military to do more and more, we understand it less and less. Military personnel certainly feel misunderstood: in its 2012 annual survey, the Military Times found that more than 75 percent of all active duty personnel and reservists felt that "The military community has little in common with the rest of the country and most civilians do not understand the military."

Many civilians would no doubt say the same, and that’s more than a little disturbing, given the military’s perpetually expanding role. All most civilians really know, in the end, is that the military has more money. And sequestration talk notwithstanding, we seem determined to keep it that way.