- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Matthew Cancian
Best Defense bureau of military compensation and cultural affairs
The New York Times recently ran an editorial titled ‘Putting Military Pay On The Table’, a title that conveniently suggests both the subject and the position. I must admit some puzzlement that the left-leaning Times would criticize the most socialist pay structure in our country. For our servicemen there is job counseling for dependents, child care, subsidized food, and single-payer health care to name some benefits, all of which would be more at home in Scandinavia than in America (a fact that I hadn’t quite appreciated when I was in).
The critique by the Times is made more baffling because it follows the recent circulation in New York Times-reading circles of a Bloomberg piece on the ratio of executive pay and compensation to those of the median employee; McDonald’s, America’s third largest employer (behind the DOD and Walmart), has a ratio of 351:1. With E-5 being the median pay grade in the military, assuming six years of service, the ratio of base pay between an O-9 and the median is just below 6:1. This is in keeping with a shared ethos of brotherhood and entirely appropriate when those at the bottom of the pay scale are in greater danger than those at the top. Additionally, in support of their position, the Times editorial cites a study by the Congressional Budget Office that states that "between 2001 and 2012, when private-sector wages were effectively flat, basic military pay rose by 28 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars." It’s almost as if something significant occurred during these years for our military that made higher pay both practically necessary and morally imperative…
All this being said, there are some areas where changes are not only acceptable, but even advisable. The current structure of paying for dependents incentivizes premature marriages that cost the military money, distract from personnel readiness, and most importantly often ruins the lives of young servicemen (to quote a battalion JAG: "I swear to God, if I have to process one more divorce with a woman named ‘Cinnamon’…"). Eliminating the dependent bonus for grades E-1 through E-3 (and, to be fair, O-1 and O-2) would help to reduce the number of these premature marriages while still providing benefits to those servicemen who are more mature.
Another measure that would reduce pay and compensation expenses is the decentralization of separations procedures. As the Marines did with the Expeditious Discharge Program of the late 1970s, the authority to grant honorable or general discharges should be delegated to O-4s; other-than-honorable discharges should be delegated to O-5s (as the Navy already does). Servicemen with disciplinary problems would be separated faster and commanders would have more control over their personnel. While we would prefer not to pay to train servicemen just to kick them out in their units, this procedural change admits that the initial screening process isn’t perfect and instead looks to save money by not paying for an unmotivated troublemaker to finish his or her contract.
The best defense for our country is not having bleeding edge technology or huge stockpiles of munitions; it’s having the best minds in our military, a point that is made throughout Tom Ricks’s book The Generals. Cutting military pay across the board directly attacks what should be the cornerstone of our defense policy by reducing the financial incentives that ensure that the military gets the best material it can. To go to extremes, if the Marines I deployed with traded gear with the Afghan soldiers we advised, I have no doubt that the Marines would still be the superior force. Some tweaks will help keep it that way; major reductions will not.
Matthew Cancian deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan in 2011 with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. He currently resides in Triple A Pawtucket, RI. He has left active duty and is applying to grad school, and would be glad to help with your research until he matriculates.