Civil-military relations and OWS: Maybe Metzenbaum was right about John Glenn
By Jim Gourley Best Defense directorate of civil-military relations Several recent posts on this blog have dealt with the financial exigencies of the defense establishment, the operations and resourcing of its component services, success of its attendant contractors and the consequences to its individual members in the context of America’s worsening economic milieu. Adjacent to ...
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense directorate of civil-military relations
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense directorate of civil-military relations
Several recent posts on this blog have dealt with the financial exigencies of the defense establishment, the operations and resourcing of its component services, success of its attendant contractors and the consequences to its individual members in the context of America’s worsening economic milieu. Adjacent to this discussion is the emergent trend of greater numbers of military veterans joining the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. In the background of these complimentary events stand troubling statistics. Military veterans are currently 2.6 percent more likely to be unemployed than civilians. As discussed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff before Congress last week, if budget cuts move forward as planned, more than 57,000 active duty personnel will be added to the ranks of the jobless. Despite recent action by the Obama administration to catalyze hiring of veterans, there is evidence that the private sector is less interested than ever in hiring people with military experience. And that favorite parachute of separated military members, civilian government service, is too tattered to provide any guarantee of safety. Even that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the twenty-year retirement payout, has been drawn precariously close to the chopping block.
So it is with great shock that I observe the proliferation of so much anti-OWS media among military members and veterans, and the especially vitriolic tone expressed in their discourse. I have listened to many friends and acquaintances deride the protestors as college punks, effete snobs, and even "commie liberals" who are simply whining when they should be getting to work and actually doing something with their lives — like military members. Some have even gone so far to point out that those protestors dissatisfied with their "safe cubicle jobs" should join the overstretched and undermanned military; a puzzling recommendation in light of the aforementioned looming personnel cuts. When I have mentioned the involvement of veterans in the OWS movement to these acquaintances, they have responded by devaluing the service of these veterans (as has been attempted even on this blog, regarding Scott Olsen) and claiming that the groups to which they belong and political causes they advocate are radical, unworthy, or otherwise invalid. This inconsistency in recognizing common ground with fellow veterans, the apparent disregard for just how little security exists in military service, and the extreme degree of self-righteousness demonstrated by military members in the conduct of this dialogue has led me to conclude that there exists a definitive financial metric in the often discussed gap between military and civilian society.
To put it succinctly, Howard Metzenbaum was right when he questioned John Glenn’s work history.
Metzenbaum ran against Glenn in the 1974 campaign for one of Ohio’s Senate seats. During one of their debates, Glenn issued his now famous "Gold Star Mother" speech, in which he challenged Metzenbaum to tell injured service members, the families of dead astronauts and mothers of fallen troops that military members had never "held a real job." However, the voting public missed a cleverly subtle misquote by Glenn amidst his soaring oratory filled with the language of freedom and patriotism. What Metzenbaum actually said was that Glenn had never "made a payroll." He believed that, for all Glenn’s courage and dignified service, he was not in touch with the plight of the average working class American citizen. That Metzenbaum lost the election largely on the basis of this debate is especially ironic in the context of his long record of fighting for workers’ rights.
To be sure, the military member endures great personal risk and hardship. There is no disputing that too many are called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, and the sacrifices of countless others are priceless. But the hard truth of the matter is that our entire country faces extraordinary economic hardship, and service members and veterans must be included in the discussion of dollars and sense. To that end, a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office finds that military members are paid considerably well — and in some cases better — compared to their civilian counterparts. Even the authors of the paper admit that it is hard to compare the value of military members’ service against civilians, though, due to separation from family, harsh working conditions, and health consequences. Service in time of war is the flag around which derisive military members rally. They respond to the OWS movement’s "I am the 99 percent" motto by citing that only one percent of the American population "makes the sacrifice to defend freedom." Tired recitations of Orwell and Father Dennis O’Brien seem to follow as surely and rhythmically as Jill came tumbling after. But if the combat tour is the hill this argument stands on, it breaks its crown before it even starts. The club of hallowed warriors whose financial security should remain indemnified is much more exclusive than 1 percent. Since the Korean War, fewer than 35 percent of all active duty service members have ever been deployed outside the United States. Less than half of all uniformed service members deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq between 2001 and 2004.
This is to say nothing of how military employment compares to circumstances in the civilian market, and this is where Metzenbaum’s observations become more relevant. While the combat troop must contend with enemy fire and IEDs, they have never had to worry about health insurance. Only recently were they given a scare as to whether their next paycheck would hit on time. The emotionally overwrought news and social media campaign about the dire straits our troops would be left in if the "government failed them, even as they fight for us" ought to be illuminating, but the military community seems to have failed to hold the mirror up to face facts. They have lost perspective of their place in the world amidst the constant drumbeat of patriotism, long march of military discounts and society’s constant refrain to "support our troops." On the financial level, the truth is that they live on no different terms than the rest of Americans. In the civilian world, they stand a higher chance to live on much worse terms.
Military members are quick to grouse these days that support for the wars has dried up since the national dialogue has turned to Wall Street. It’s the "we’re already being forgotten" tune. But in actuality it’s the military that’s forgetting. For nearly a decade, the armed forces have enjoyed the support of American solidarity on a near-unprecedented level. There can be no doubt that many of the people attending ‘Occupy’ movements around the country at one time or another found a way to express their support of service members. It is certain that, not so long ago, the veterans in the crowd stood next to those who remain in uniform. Whether military members support the movement or its beliefs is a matter of personal choice. But the viciousness demonstrated in the commentary of many military members is contradictory to the obligations of basic human compassion. The front lines of combat are difficult and dangerous. Honor and respect is owed to those who serve there. But there is also honor in every other kind of honest labor. It is unconscionable for one to demand special tribute for service to country by fighting on the front line, and then deny a person’s right to fight against indignity while working on the checkout line. Military members have had to make difficult choices and regrettable sacrifices. But the majority of them have never had to make a payroll. They should not take for granted the plight of those that do.
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.