- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Capt. Brad Hardy, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest rower
The desk next to me is vacant, the end result of the current government shutdown. My counterpart, a government civilian, is furloughed until further notice. This is the second time this year he has been sent home without pay.
I wonder why him and not me. I am an active-duty servicemember. Congress and the president have made a special allowance in the absence of a continuing resolution so that I may be paid regularly. I absolutely feel fortunate and my wife is breathing a little easier. And I’m sure that the spouses of those deployed now have one fewer worry on their minds.
But again, what makes me special while my civilian colleague draws the short stick? Where do we draw the line and force the military, as a piece of the federal government team, to shoulder at least some of the shutdown burden?
The reason may be that the military, for a number of theories, is a beatified, protected sect among American society. As such, not funding military pay checks is bad politics. Few in Washington want to be considered as anti-military, non-flag waving, unpatriotic, or overly inquisitive of how the military conducts its business. In general terms, supporting the military, at least financially, is the undeniable solution even if one finds the policy objectives murky or the actual conduct of war unnecessary or ham-fisted. And again, I’m not complaining about my continued compensation. Money is good. So are groceries. But by holding our place in society to a higher order than those who serve with commensurate dedication and vigor we may damage the very nature of what American uniformed service means. Furlough equity should be considered a part of professional military service.
We should dust off our copies of The Soldier and the State and consider that familiar phrase “profession of arms.” A professional military, which we consider ourselves almost by dictum, must be under the objective control of civilian authority. In the American system, we subordinate ourselves to the civilian government in order to protect it (from us). However, by placing the military’s pay at a higher priority than that of our civilians, we degrade this image of professionalism, selfless service, or any other tortured application of the Army Values we evoke to self-separate from society. The military is lionized and segregated as something monolithically special, elite, almost mystical and deified. So long as any narrative fits this ideal, most objective examinations to the contrary are rebuffed.
Consider the example of the WWII veteran “invasion” of their memorial in Washington, D.C. These vets and their occupation of an otherwise closed national park was largely applauded in the media despite being threatened with arrest. I wouldn’t besmirch these veterans, just as so many wouldn’t either. For many, their “Honor Flight” and trip to the capital may be the first and last time to witness the amazing memorial constructed to honor them. However, this act demonstrates, across generations and wars, just how high the pedestal the military is placed on. An unlikely but possibly criminal act can be glossed over as a stand against congressional gridlock and show of red-blooded patriotism. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope. Just as no one wants to see an elderly man in a wheelchair blocked from his memorial or handcuffed, no one wants to see today’s troops go unpaid.
There may not be an easy solution and one may not be necessary if the government is turned back on. But the pay caveat to the shutdown episode tells me that the profession of arms may be a myth, while the warrior class is alive, well, and paid off before others.
Captain Brad Hardy is a U.S. Army strategist. The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.
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