The Profound Misunderstanding the Public Has About How the Military Operates

News & Politics

In one of the greatest PR successes of all time, close to 100 percent of Americans believe the United States has a volunteer military. It does not. What the United States does have is a recruited military.

The distinction matters for many reasons, most importantly because overcoming profound public misunderstandings on this and other realities of the U.S. killing machine is essential to building a vigorous anti-war movement.

Before we zoom in, let’s zoom out.

Just as a fish may not know it’s wet, few Americans have any idea of just how pervasive militarism is in defining who we are as a nation and as a people. From the massacre of indigenous people to the suppression of slave resistance, we are steeped in brutal and relentless slaughter. We are also utterly and completely immersed in language designed to confuse and obscure just how much killing and destroying we do.

At the very core of our identity is the idea that “freedom” requires that we kill, kill, kill. “They died for our freedom,” rings throughout the land, not just on Veterans Day or July 4, but every day. While we say they died, what we also mean is that they killed. As Donald Trump and General Kelly put it, “that’s what they signed up for.”

To be clear, there is a cohort that does join the military voluntarily. Many are the children of active duty and retired military personnel. Many are low-income for the simple reason that the military offers a place of relative stability and opportunity. Some join out of sincere support for the mission of the U.S. military and/or because they are attracted to the military way of life. But however many genuine volunteers there are, there are nowhere near enough of them to meet the Pentagon’s staffing needs. Which is where the recruiting machinery comes into play.

As an exercise, try keeping track of how many times a day you see or hear something that in some way glorifies the use of force, either in personal conversation or more commonly from the media. Yes, any version at all of “thank you for your service,” counts, whether it refers to a “first responder” (isn’t that a clever phrase), or a citizen, or a soldier.

Instead of just letting all that praise and worship wash over you, pay attention. Notice how often you see military references at sporting events. This is not an accident. It is but one component in the Pentagon’s vast recruiting operation.

Consider this little nugget from a Wall Street Journal article on the debate over whether Roger Goodell should continue as Commissioner of the National Football League.

Remember that the NFL was cultivated into prominence by Pete Rozelle, a pro-war conservative. In the 1960s, Rozelle hired a World War II veteran-turned-filmmaker, Ed Sabol, to produce highlights, commercials and documentaries that marketed the sport as patriotic and militaristic. Sabol’s NFL Films made football feel more American than baseball. His work was so critical to the league’s wild growth that in 2011 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The same honor had been bestowed on Rozelle in 1985, while he was still commissioner.

Back in 2015 Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain rocked this boat a little by questioning the Pentagon’s relationship to sports:

"The Pentagon has paid more than $9 million to professional sports franchises the past four years, including $6.8 million to stage 'paid patriotism' events, Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain disclosed Wednesday.

"The events ranged from full-field displays of the American flag to enlistment and re-enlistment ceremonies and emotional reunions of returning servicemembers and their families.

“'What is upsetting is when you see activities like this that people assume when they go to games are paid for out of the goodness of the heart by the owners and the teams, and then to find out the taxpayers are paying for it. It kind of cheapens (it) and it’s simply not right,' Flake said at a news conference with McCain to release the report."

Needless to say, the effort by Senators Flake and McCain to illuminate this activity had no impact whatsoever.

There’s More

What else does the Pentagon do to help meet its recruitment targets? A lot, including paid advertising for each branch of the military, storefront offices and many personnel dedicated to recruiting.

As far back as 2007, the Christian Science Monitor reported that between 1985 and 2005 the cost per recruit went from $7,000 to $16,000. The story ironically cited as a source a Defense Department report titled, "Recruiting an All-Volunteer Force." I am not making this up.

Where do the “volunteers” come from? It’s common to hear references to an economic draft. That’s misleading. In the first place, it’s not true that recruits come disproportionately from poor communities. They don’t. Roughly speaking, the active duty army reflects the class/race composition of the country. Minus, of course, the one percent, or more accurately, the five percent. And females.

There are, however, geographic differences. At least anecdotally, we know the Pentagon targets urban high schools for low-income recruits and rural schools for white recruits. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Per capita, nearly twice as many small-town Americans have died at war since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks compared with those from large metro areas.”

The Expenses Are Enormous

Direct recruiting is only part of the story. The need to constantly increase compensation for service men and women generates staggering costs. As recruitment has proven more and more difficult, the Pentagon has had to continuously sweeten the pot.

Keep in mind that the military has been a socialist organization for a very long time. From each according to their ability to each according to their needs.

Lots and lots of needs. Read slowly through this list, taken directly from the Pentagon’s proposed 2018 budget (see Figure 5-2 at that link):

Military Pay and Benefits Summary

The foundation of military pay is Regular Military Compensation (RMC). Every member receives the following pay or in-kind entitlement:

  • Basic Pay
  • Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) with the advantage of being tax-free.
  • Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS) with the advantage of being tax-free.

Members may also receive a series of other allowances to offset the costs they incur because of official travel and relocation, family separation, uniform replacement, and the greater than normal living expenses associated with assignments to high-cost locations.

Every member receives:

  • 30-days paid vacation annually;
  • Free health, dental, and vision care; and automatic survivor coverage in event of death on active duty. For members on active duty, free health care is also available for their dependents.

Members who qualify, may receive in addition to the above universal benefits, additional compensation in the form of Special and Incentive (S&I) pays, which are used to target specific occupations, specialties, and segments of the force to:

  • Attract and retain members in certain occupations or specific skills (e.g., enlistment and reenlistment bonuses, critical skills retention bonuses, medical special pays)
  • Motivate attainment of specific skills (e.g., language proficiency pay, dive pay)
  • Recognize hardships, danger, or arduous duty (e.g., hardship duty pay, parachute duty pay, imminent danger pay, firefighting crew member pay)
  • Incentivize hard to fill assignments or those of special responsibility (e.g., assignment incentive pay, special duty assignment pay).

Members, as well as their dependents, are offered many other non-monetary benefits such as:

  • Subsidized child care
  • Subsidized life insurance
  • Education and tuition assistance
  • Child, youth, and family support programs
  • Discounted retail shopping (Commissary and Exchange)
  • Spiritual health and support
  • Access to a wide range of welfare and recreation offerings (e.g., club, golf, pool, other sports and recreation facilities, commercial discount tickets, internet cafes)

Members who qualify receive a retirement:

  • Lifetime defined benefit after 20 years of service
  • Lifetime defined benefit upon occurrence of significant disability
  • Most of the same non-monetary benefits as while serving
  • Subsidized health care for self and family
  • Subsidized survivor protection

To state the obvious, especially with the decline of unions, very few civilian workers have this kind of package. Is it expensive? Of course.

Back to the Pentagon’s own budget document...

Figure 5-1 displays a summary of the Department’s base budget pay and benefits funding since the War on Terror began, as illustrated by FY2001 and FY2012 through FY2018. Military pay and benefits funding increased from $99.5 billion in FY 2001 to $183.8 billion in FY 2012 (an 85 percent increase), remaining roughly one-third (34.6 percent) of the total budget due to a similar increase in the Department’s base budget authority.

However, Figure 5-1 also demonstrates that the average cost per capita of military personnel increased significantly during this period. This is evident in the size (end strength) and composition of the force.

It’s Still Not Enough

Another way the military is definitely not a volunteer organization is that it increasingly relies on civilian employees. The Blackwater scandal in Iraq exposed an enormous increase in the number of civilians doing military work from the mundane to highly dangerous combat.

The military is also not a volunteer organization to the extent it has relied on extended tours of duty under what is called the stop-loss program. While there is not a compulsory “draft” to get you into the military, there is one to keep you there once they have you in the system.

Does it all work? No.

Once again from the Pentagon’s Budget request:

“Despite the Army’s best efforts, most missions consume readiness at a rate the Army struggles to maintain. Currently, approximately one out of three BCTs, one out of four CABs, and one out of two Division Headquarters are ready. The Army requires additional people, training, and equipment to ensure readiness, as reflected in the FY 2018 budget request.”

Just recently USA Today reported that the Army is lowering its standards in order to meet its recruitment targets.

"People with a history of 'self-mutilation,' bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse can now seek waivers to join the Army under an unannounced policy enacted in August, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY.

"The decision to open Army recruiting to those with mental health conditions comes as the service faces the challenging goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018. To meet last year's goal of 69,000, the Army accepted more recruits who fared poorly on aptitude tests, increased the number of waivers granted for marijuana use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses."

Recruiting generally is more challenging for the services when the economy is strong. The Army has responded by offering more bonuses to those who sign up for service. In fiscal year 2017, it paid out $424 million in bonuses, up from $284 million in 2016. In 2014, that figure was only $8.2 million. Some recruits can qualify for a bonus of $40,000.

Big Myth Number 2

The companion myth to the fairy tale that we have a volunteer military is that we can’t have an effective anti-war movement because there is no draft. This assumption rests on the widespread embrace of a pro-war talking point with a long history. Even many who were in the movement that opposed the U.S. war on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are bamboozled by this baloney.

But make no mistake about it; the assumption that the draft caused the 1960s anti-war movement is demonstrably false.

First off, misrepresenting the motivational importance of the draft is profoundly sexist. Women played a major role in the movement. They weren’t subject to the draft at all. Joan Baez, Cora Weiss, Judy Gumbo, Jane Fonda, Grace Paley, Holly Near, Coretta Scott King and millions of others not well known played critical roles in every phase of the anti-war movement.

Also significant: young white males who organized resistance to the Vietnam draft were very often those who had college deferments, compliant doctors, political clout and other means to avoid service.

Also revealing is the contrast with the Korean war. Like Vietnam, it had the same “stop the communist menace to our way of life” rationale. The class and race composition of those drafted was also virtually identical. So was the casualty rate and the brutality being visited upon the Korean people. Was there comparable mass opposition to the Korean war? No, there wasn’t.

None of this is meant to say that the draft played no role in Vietnam war resistance. While it wasn’t the cause of the opposition, it did provide a powerful way to disrupt the war-making machinery.

But here’s the thing: There is at least as much potential now to undermine the recruiting system as there once was to mess with the draft.

OK—So Now What?

Why is there nothing close to a mass movement opposing U.S. war-making today? First and foremost, as stated at the outset, ours is a deeply entrenched violence-loving, war-making society. That addiction is hard to overcome.

That’s why the widespread opposition to the U.S. war on Vietnam was such a remarkable achievement. Admittedly, that movement had a lot of help from other forces at the time including multiple rebellions at home and anti-colonial struggles worldwide. (If Ho Chi Minh was a nightmare for the Pentagon, Osama Bin Laden was a dream come true.)

Still, from Black Lives Matter to Bernie Sanders to Standing Rock to the January 21, 2017, Women’s March and subsequent Women’s Convention, #MeToo and more, there are insurgencies afoot. It is entirely possible, even likely, they will evolve into even more vigorous and popular movements. Thanks to the idea of “intersectionality,” they may cooperate with each other more going forward.

For now, however, these groups mostly pay only token attention to issues of militarism and war. Connecting the dots between systemic patriarchy, white supremacy and permanent war is the exception rather than the rule.

There are important exceptions. Code Pink, veterans peace organizations, faith-based groups and others are dedicated to raising awareness of these connections. And there are already projects targeted specifically at counteracting the Pentagon recruiting juggernaut.


By calling it a juggernaut, am I playing into their very strategy of seeming invincible? Why, yes, I am.

The reality is that the recruiting machine is vulnerable. There is widespread moral opposition to never-ending war. War fatigue is growing. The astronomical suicide rate among veterans attests to the moral injury and other negative effects of military service. The many benefits promised before, during and after military service are often not delivered. High school students and teachers alike are sympathetic to anti-war messages.

This is not the place to advance specific strategies and tactics. But to be sure, once we start looking, they are there to be developed.

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