Nicholas Kristof's Perversion of the U.S. Military Model

I’m often asked by puzzled classmates why–after graduating from Harvard College with an economics degree and working at a distinguished think tank in Washington, D.C.–I now sport the U.S. Navy blue and gold and serve as an enlisted Aviation Structural Mechanic. My Harvard degree, they imply, entitles me to lead; someone in my position shouldn’t be forced to serve.

Kristof doesn’t have a clue

The military, you see, is for poor troublemakers with no better options. Advanced foreign policy analysis and decision-making, on the other hand, is for worldly Harvard intellectuals–people like Joseph “Soft Power” Nye, Samantha Power, and Nicholas Kristof. They have no military experience, but they are uniquely qualified to offer advice on U.S. defense policy to the very president himself because they have a superior understanding of the world. Or something.

I should, my friends imply, have sought to become one of them–not a Navy grunt. After all, as Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about the Afghanistan War, “our military presence is feeding the insurgency, not quelling it,” and “the heavier our military footprint, the more resentment.” Furthermore, according to Kristof, “education has a rather better record than military power in neutralizing foreign extremism,” and “building schools is a better bet for peace than firing missiles,” so we should trade in our guns and “wage a war we could be proud of”–a Global War on Poverty. Someone with my background, then, should be advocating increased foreign aid, not joining an “organization whose mission involves killing people.”

For five years, I was forced to listen to such proclamations in the halls of Harvard and on Capitol Hill. After hearing about the military from people who have nothing but contempt for it for so long, I decided to enlist and see for myself. Reading Nicholas Kristof’s editorial in today’s New York Times, I couldn’t be happier I did.

Usually, in Kristof’s writing, the military is a colossal waste of money, reflecting a “gross misallocation of resources” and a huge overinvestment. Today, however, because it serves some other political agenda for him to say so, the military–now affectionately referred to as “our lefty military”–is a paragon of the liberal ethos, a social model that should be exported to the rest of society.

What are the hallmarks of this model? According to Kristof, they are:

  1. Universal healthcare
  2. Educational opportunity
  3. Civil rights
  4. Excellent child care
  5. Equal investment in people
  6. The spirit of public service

    After recently coming home for the first time in five months after my military indoctrination at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, and Naval Air Station, Pensacola, I must disagree. The military is in no way an example of the liberal ethos. Instead, it is its antidote.

    Let me respond to Kristof, point by point.

    1. Universal healthcare. Yes, the military does provide basically “free” healthcare. But only to those currently serving on active duty and their dependents. In other words, your healthcare is only free when you can be sent to do any kind of work, at any hour, anywhere on the globe, based on the needs of the military–in other words, when you have committed to give up your life for country, if called upon to do so, and effectively turned your body into government property.

    When I was discharged from the active component to the reserve component on June 5, I immediately lost my coverage, although my husband and I were given the option to switch to TriCare Reserve Select, a program with a monthly premium of about $200. Military retirees are given similar options. Only after 20 years of active duty service do they qualify for pensions and more generous retiree health benefits. In other words, a lesser commitment entitles you to a lesser benefit.

    2. Educational opportunity. The same goes for educational opportunity. The military provides handsome educational benefits, but these are conditional. Graduates of national military academies or ROTC programs are required to serve for a certain number of years, or to repay the government for their scholarships if they change their minds and choose some other career path. Military personnel taking college courses while on active duty are required to maintain certain grades, or else the lose the benefit. And the largest educational benefit, the Montgomery G.I. Bill, requires active duty military personnel to enroll at a cost of $100 per month for 12 months. Under this arrangement, the military has built up a substantial fund and can afford to give quite generous benefits to service members who seek them precisely because so few apply.

    3. Civil rights. On this point, Kristof wants it both ways. On the one hand, “the military helped lead the way in racial desegregation, and even today it does more to provide equal opportunity to working-class families — especially to blacks — than just about any social program.” On the other hand, “the military remains often unwelcoming to gays and lesbians and is conflicted about women as well.” In truth, military demographics have very little to do with the liberal ethos and everything to do with the military’s warfighting needs and recruitment efforts on the one hand, and with the proclivity and eligibility of young people to serve on the other. As a result, the military workforce is predominantly young and male. Moreoever, as a 2008 Heritage Foundation report found, the poorest households are actually underrepresented in the military and households above the median income level contribute the highest percentage of recruits. This is largely because obesity and other health conditions, drug use, criminal records, and failure to graduate from high school disqualify one from entering the military.

    4. Childcare. Kristof raves about the military’s childcare system, but seems oblivious to the unique challenges of pregnancy and parenthood for active duty personnel. The military strongly urges personnel not to get pregnant or have children while they are on sea duty or assigned to deploying units, and effectively forces single parents to sign over custody of their children to others while they are on active duty. Active duty parents stationed at U.S. military bases do have access to childcare, but it is often many times more expensive than the $44 per week figure that Kristof cites. And again, these policies–like family separation pay during deployments, housing allowances for married personnel, and other family support programs–have far more to do with ensuring military readiness than with some liberal ethos, as Kristof partly acknowledges.

    5. Investment in human capital. Kristof raves that the military manages to invests in its people, while maintaining minimal income disparities. After receiving five months of outstanding military training, good meals and accommodation, and a seabag of military gear, including New Balance sneakers, I can attest that the military does indeed invest in its people. We are constantly reminded, however, that any benefits we enjoy are contingent on our continued good conduct. Break the rules, and you’ll be stripped of half a month’s pay for two months, or simply kicked out. Commit some military crime, and you’re off to the brig, where you can be sentenced to rations of only bread and water for up to three days at a time (seriously). Fail your first three physical readiness tests, and you could be out of the military in 18 months.

    Military personnel are dismissed every day for infractions that unionized public employees could commit without consequences. But if they work hard, arrive early, and follow instructions meticulously, they can earn promotions and pay increases that set them years ahead of their peers–and ultimately millions of dollars ahead too.

    For Marx it was: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In the military, sometimes your ability isn’t enough, in which case nobody really cares about your needs. It’s a meritocratic system that handsomely rewards excellence and fiercely punishes failure.

    While the pay gaps between generals and privates may not be as wide as those between CEOs and janitors, they can be significantly higher than the 10-1 ratio Kristof cites, especially when benefits, bonuses, and pensions are taken into account. Socialism may promote equal power relations, the reduction of hierarchy, and the allocation of rewards according to some concept of social justice, as opposed to competition. But in the military, merit–as demonstrated by test scores, physical fitness, character, and leadership qualities–is everything. And as a result, the military has the clearest and most respected of hierarchies–between officers and enlisted personnel, and between superiors and subordinates within each group.

    6. The inculcation of the ideal of public service. According to Kristof, the military inculcates the ideal of public service and eschews the “Gimme” ethic of business. I don’t know exactly what he means by that unqualified insult to the country’s entrepreneurs–most businesspeople I’ve met know that their companies’ profits are only as high as their customer satisfaction, which, in turn, depends on constant hard work and innovation. And I don’t really know what he means by “the ideal of public service” either–the example he provides is of soldiers sometimes digging into their own pockets to help provide supplies for Afghan schools, an example more of common kindness than of distinguished military service. I would agree that while the military does not promote the “Gimme” ethic, it certainly encourages people to strive to attain certain distinctions and rewards–including financial rewards, like cars, houses, and savings accounts–and then to go out and earn them through prudence and hard work.

    The only place I’ve observed a different ethic at play during my military service is in the large bureaucratic offices staffed by civilian paper-pushers whose computer systems are always down, and who are always telling you to “come back tomorrow.”

    So perhaps Kristof is onto something. After all, his argument is a qualified one. He writes, “when our armed forces are not firing missiles, they live by an astonishingly liberal ethos” (emphasis added). And he goes so far as to say, “Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the American military isn’t its aircraft carriers, stunning as they are. Rather, it’s the military day care system for working parents.”

    So really, he’s talking about some imagined anti-military. The real military isn’t some rosy social program. The real military requires you to earn your benefits precisely by rigging and firing missiles, and by serving long deployments at sea on the sweltering deck of an aircraft carrier. Only those parts of the Defense Department that have precious little to do with missiles and carriers exhibit anything akin to Kristof’s liberal ethos.

    I would sooner be a part of the real U.S. military than of Kristof’s Harvardian anti-military any day. The entitlements crisis in America today is largely caused by a perverse liberal impulse to extend military-style benefits to all, but without the military’s standards, and to extend military-style control over parts of the economy where it would be hopelessly inappropriate, while simultaneously undermining the military’s core functions.

    The U.S. was founded by people who believed financial success is a reward for hard work, not an entitlement. It was built by people who believed that individuals, communities, and state governments would control most aspects of life in a free society, and that the federal government would only have control over fighting threats so large they could jeopardize the security of the entire U.S. population at once. Those values are still cherished by the men and women in uniform who defend America’s people, territory, and principles, even if they are perverted by many in our country’s elite.

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