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We're Looking for a Few Poor Men

If America loves its troops so much, why don't we pay them a living wage?
 
 
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Not everyone loves the war, but everyone loves the troops. So why, in the words of my pal Bill Maher, do we pay them like chumps?

During Vietnam the military felt no pressure to pay a living wage. A steady supply of draftees ensured that the Pentagon would never run out of cannon fodder. Since top military officials don't want to bring back the draft, you might expect the government would be willing to pay more for our all-volunteer army.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has completely dissed draftees, saying they offer "no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time." So you might expect the United States would show the young men and women who volunteer to lay down their lives to protect us, some appreciation in the form of a big fat paycheck.

You'd be wrong.

Take a guy like Pat Tillman, a 25-year-old who until last year worked as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals football team. Tillman passed up a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer from the NFL to serve in the U.S. Army. Private Tillman's starting pay was $13,000--a paltry buck and a dime over the $5.15-per-hour minimum wage.

Senator John McCain, who understands the risks of military service more than most, lauded Tillman. "I don't think there will be any doubts about [Private Tillman's] capabilities as a soldier, but also as a recruiting tool," McCain said. "He'll motivate other young Americans to serve as well." Thanks to idealistic chaps like Tillman, in other words, America can continue to pick up its warriors on the cheap.

George W. Bush did everything he could to avoid military service during Vietnam. He used family connections to sleaze his way into the Texas Air National Guard, from which he went AWOL from 1972 to 1974. (Some military law experts believe that he should still be tried for desertion.) Perhaps this personal history explains why Bush seizes every chance he gets to praise the hard-fighting men and women of our armed forces. "All of America is grateful for your sacrifice," Bush told a gathering of Marines on April 3. A few days earlier, he choked up while meeting with widows of the Iraq war. But troops shouldn't look to Bush for support more substantial than words and gestures.

Bush recently asked Congress to appropriate $75 billion to pay for the invasion of Iraq. If that money were evenly divided among the 1.4 million members of the armed forces on active duty, each would receive $54,000. But even as Bush revs up a propaganda campaign for new wars against Syria and Iran, his 2003 budget proposes a piddling 2 percent raise for low-ranking soldiers, hardly enough to keep up with inflation. More than 2,100 servicemen currently collect food stamps, and no one expects that to change.

It's true that soldiers receive PX privileges, health care and, in some cases, small college tuition grants. But even these modest fringe benefits are shrinking. "[Base housing is] in poor condition," Army General Robert L. Van Antwerp testified before Congress. "Much of the housing is old and built to standards that met lifestyles of 30 to 50 years ago. On-base housing is still preferred by many soldiers, with waiting times averaging 10 to 15 months." Gen. Antwerp also complains that buildings and equipment are worn and out of date.

Soldiers sign away their lives on a pretty severe deal. The pay sucks, the risk is infinite and the benefits of military service are shrinking fast. At any time in the future, some politician nobody has yet heard of can become president and order them into combat against any adversary for any reason. Then, when our troops come home -- if they come home -- they face a lifetime of medical care in the overburdened, underfunded VA hospital system.

To add insult to injury, even job security is now part of military history. Congress has closed 97 bases since 1988, leading to de facto layoffs, with some soldiers denied an option to reenlist.

As a society, we apparently care less about our soldiers than we do about burger flippers. Starting wages at Burger King "run $6 to $8 an hour, although employees who stick around can eventually earn more than $12 an hour," according to the Wall Street Journal. That's twice as much as Private Tillman gets. And unless you get stuck with the late shift at the Bed-Stuy BK, burger flippers generally don't have to duck bullets.

Ted Rall is the author of "Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan."