Socialism in the American Military

Around the time of the 2008 presidential election between John McCain and Barrack Obama I was ordered by the Department of Defense to report to Fort Benning Georgia as part of my in-processing back into the military.  I had been on the “inactive ready reserve,” or “IRR,” a rather unpleasant status which meant that I could be recalled by the military after my original term of active service had expired, which it did in 2005.  I had already served a tour in Iraq, and now was being called in for a second.

Lots of folks were being recalled and in-processed at Fort Benning.  Some were lower enlisted, some were sergeants, and some were high-ranking officers.  And lots of these folks were drinking heavily after they were released from the day’s financial paperwork, medical examinations, and equipment issue.  (Others were just plain freaking out.)  We were all strangers, trying to make sense of our situation.  One of my more interesting conversations during this time was with a Major whose job it was to manage recreational facilities on military bases.  Let’s call him Major Gilley, whose name I cannot remember precisely but was something to that effect.  He asked me about my story and I explained I was in college majoring in political science, and was planning on applying for graduate school.  A smile creeped across his face, and he asked me if I had ever noticed that the military was actually a sort of socialist system.  He listed off a few reasons, I added a few of my own as I considered his idea.  They are plain to see for anyone familiar with military life.  You have provided for you food, clothing, shelter, medical care.  You all fill a role based on the needs of the leaders and your own relevant abilities.  Everyone fits in somewhere on a pay scale.

And most people will tell you that we have the finest fighting force the world has ever seen, so there must be something to this system.  It works in a way that most civilians could never imagine consenting to for their own lives.  (This point perhaps helps explain why IRRs would be thinking to talk about this — most of us felt we hadn’t really consented to this recall, and felt our freedom had been taken from us in some degree.  If you had wanted to rejoin the fight, you would have just re-enlisted.)  Not only is the quasi-socialism of the military unappetizing from the individual choice of a civilian perspective, but the experience of the Cold War taught us that extreme forms of socialism (communism) trend toward tyranny.

I’ve been recalling (pun intended) this memory as I read Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” which describes a socialist utopia in the United States that is in many ways modeled after how the military tends to operate.  Instead of a military for national defense, in Bellamy’s vision there is an “industrial army.”  Everyone gets paid the same, and everyone is matched by their ability to their ideal industrial role in society.  No one suffers from want of housing, food, clothes, or medical care.  It is all provided by workers in the industrial army, who take pride in their jobs not for the size of their salaries but for their dutiful service to the nation.  This is an old, largely forgotten book, but it has the same effect Major Gilley’s question had on me about 10 years ago.  We believe that socialism is unworkable, yet when you look to the military you find something of a socialist model that does seem to be working.  There is law and order in the military, people are taken care of.  Many are quite happy during peacetime or between deployments.  Why does it fail when it migrates outside the bounds of the military into general society?  Or, why don’t we introduce more freedom and market-competition into our military?  Perhaps it is underperforming its true potential . . Maybe instead of school choice, we can have unit choice?  Choice of drill sergeant?  Rental fees for the barracks?

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