Sometimes a little history is just what the doctor ordered.
On April 16, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been president for 12 weeks. He had previously served as the top allied commander in Europe during World War II. When he spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors at the Statler Hotel in Washington. The Korean War, the first major Cold War combat, had still months to go. Additionally, it was his first opportunity as president to address the American people, and the topic he chose was not what you might have anticipated coming from the greatest combatant of the second world war of the twentieth century. Even though “the shadow of terror again has ominously stretched across the planet,” he was focused on maintaining peace.
Eisenhower presented the state of the world in a startlingly bleak and unforgettable way at a time when the Cold War was still heating up. He warned the editors that if things didn’t get better, “The worst to dread and the best to expect can be simply expressed. Atomic warfare is the worst. The ideal situation would be one in which everyone lived in constant anxiety and tension and through the heavy weight of military service. Then, as a kind of measure for gauging his future presidency—and perhaps all future ones—he added these enduring words:
Every weapon produced, every vessel sent into action, and every rocket fired ultimately amounts to a theft from people who are hungry and unfed, unclothed and freezing. This militarized world is not only spending money. It is squandering the toil of its workers, the brilliance of its scientists, and the aspirations of its young people. One contemporary heavy bomber would cost the equivalent of more than 30 contemporary brick schools. It consists of two electric power plants, each of which serves a town with 60,000 residents. There are two excellent, fully functional hospitals. About fifty miles of it are made of concrete. With 500,000 bushels of wheat, we purchase one fighter jet. We replace the new dwellings that might have accommodated more than 8,000 people with one destroyer.
Eisenhower was incredibly persuasive and on point. But as it turned out, the Cold War and the correspondingly bloated national security budgets only intensified under his administration. He would conclude it almost eight years later with a succinct, traditional “farewell address” to the American people in which he noted that “this coupling of an enormous military establishment and a large armaments industry is unusual in the American experience.” Then he delivered a warning that served as the essence of his farewell, and in doing so, he created a phrase that, for obvious reasons, has never left our vocabulary: “In the councils of
Government, we must take precautions to prevent the military-industrial complex from gaining unwarranted power, whether it is sought or not. It will always be possible for misguided power to reach to destructive levels.
Sadly, this has continued even decades after Eisenhower’s Cold War, which came to an end in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, a staggeringly over-funded military-industrial complex is, to use Eisenhower’s phrase, “really stealing from those who hunger and are not fed,” as TomDispatch regular, co-creator of the Costs of War Project, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino explains in all-too-devastating detail. And, as Mazzarino makes apparent today, that irony of ironies extends not only to society at general but, believe it or not, even to the military.
By any measure, the amount of money the US government invests in its military is just staggering. Consider the $858 billion authorization for Pentagon expenditure that President Biden signed into law last month. In addition to being approved by a bipartisan vote of 83-11 in a Senate that was otherwise divided, the budget increase of 4.3% for this year is the second-highest since World War II. In fact, the Pentagon has received more funding than the combined budgets of the next ten largest cabinet agencies. And that doesn’t even factor in the rising expense of caring for the nation’s post-9/11 war veterans or the budget for homeland security. Additionally, that measure provides active-duty and reserve forces with the highest pay hike in 20 years and an increase in benefits.
However, despite these adjustments and a skyrocketing Pentagon budget, many US soldiers and military families will still find it difficult to make ends meet. Take your ability to eat enough as one simple example of a welfare indicator. Thousands of service personnel are still “food insecure” or undernourished. In other words, throughout the previous year, members of those families either worried about running out of food or really did.
I recently conducted an interview with Tech Sergeant Daniel Faust, a full-time Air Force reserve member in charge of instructing other airmen, as a military spouse myself and co-founder of the Costs of War Project. He is a married father of four who, between 2012 and 2019, had to choose between buying groceries and paying his rent four times, putting him on the verge of becoming homeless each time. He asked for help from neighbourhood charity and was able to make ends meet. And, regrettably, the airman has been around some pretty decent company lately. One in eight military families were reportedly food insecure in 2019. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, that percentage increased to about a quarter of them. In recent years,the advocacy organisation Military Family Advisory Network found that one in six military families struggled with food poverty.
Since the bulk of military personnel are from middle-class areas, it should come as no surprise that their hardships are shared by many other Americans. Inflation in the US increased by more than 9% in 2022, driven by a number of variables, including pandemic-related supply-chain issues and, you guessed it, war. The cost of living increased by 4.5% on average in the United States last year, which was not enough to keep up with income growth. In the military, this held true just as much.
An Indifferent Public
A persistent preference for arming Ukraine implies that at least some Americans are aware of that facet of US military strategy. The surprising thing, though, is that far too many people in this century seemed unconcerned with the negative domestic effects of our protracted, failed Global War on Terror. The US military’s expanding budget and global reach, which includes military bases and deployed personnel in dozens of nations, were at least partially to blame for the nation’s growing polarisation and radicalization, the deterioration of civil liberties and human rights protections, and the decreasing access of so many Americans to quality healthcare and food.
The fact that hunger even exists in a military that receives such generous funding from Congress should serve as a sobering reminder of how little attention we give to many important concerns, such as how our troops are treated. Simply put, Americans take much too much for granted. This is particularly regrettable because the obstacles to military families’ access to food security are mostly the result of government red tape.
Just think about how the government decides these families’ eligibility for food aid when it comes to needless red tape. A number of advocacy organisations, including the National Military Family Association and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, have drawn attention to how the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), a non-taxable stipend provided to military families to help cover housing costs, is taken into account when determining whether or not a family qualifies for food assistance. Too many families in need of this help are therefore disqualified.
Debt-Funded Living, Debt-Funded Wars
And yet even for us, affording the basics has sometimes proved challenging. During the first few months after any move to a new duty station, a typical uprooting experience for military families, we’ve had to wield our credit cards to get food and other necessities like gas. Add to that take-out and restaurant meals, hotel rooms, and Ubers as we wait weeks for private contractors to arrive with our kitchen supplies, furniture, and the like.
The BAH issue is only a small component of a bigger picture of military life in the twenty-first century, which includes a plethora of expenses, many of which are unpredictable (like local property markets). I am aware of this due to my twelve years as a military spouse. I’m one of the most fortunate military spouses out there, married to an officer and coming from an upper-middle-class upbringing as a white, cisgender woman. I have two graduate degrees, a job that I can do from home, and healthy kids. When times are tough, we have friends and family who help us out financially and logistically by providing things like childcare, housing costs, and Christmas presents for our kids.
Add the cost of hiring babysitters while we wait for our two young children to be accepted by cheap childcare facilities in the new neighbourhood, and then the high cost of childcare when we do. During one of those moves in 2018, I learned that the military had even started moving families like ours to the back of wait lists for childcare cost help. One Pentagon person informed me this was done “to give others an opportunity” when I called to voice my displeasure. We spent roughly twice as much on daycare in each of the five years before both of our children started attending public school as the typical junior enlisted military service member’s household makes in total income.
These kinds of demands, which are the core of military life, are still beyond the reach of our budgets.
Don’t worry though, even if your spouse isn’t close by, there are still plenty of social occasions for family members to get together, including yearly balls for which you’re required to shell out a lot of money in advance. Such gatherings have increased in frequency and are generally perceived as necessary in the post-9/11 period. The military is setting an example for “bringing your complete self (money included) to work” in this age of the gig economy and the elimination of job perks and safeguards.
Add the Covid-19 pandemic to this exciting mix now. Given the pre- and post-deployment quarantine regulations, as well as labour and supply-chain constraints that made relocation ever less efficient, the schedules of many military personnel only became more problematic. Prior to the pandemic, military spouse unemployment rates were roughly 24%, but by the beginning of 2021, they had risen to well than 30%. Public schools and daycare centres could no longer be relied upon to release spouses from single parenting during deployments so that they could go to work. Travel and lax (or nonexistent) Covid policies contributed to the spike in infection rates in military communities. Naturally, all of this made it inevitable that family members’ absences from work and school would increase.
To make matters worse, when the previous Congress was coming to a close, the Republicans insisted that a law authorising the repeal of the obligation for military members to receive Covid vaccinations be included in the Pentagon budget bill. All I can say is that’s a little more personal independence than this military spouse is able to process at this time.
Worse still, this nation’s ostensibly endless and destructive twenty-first century war on terror, which was almost exclusively supported by national debt, also made it inevitable that military personnel, who were sent all over the world, would accumulate ever-increasing amounts of it themselves. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that military families experience credit card debt at a much higher rate than civilian households.
The difficulties of living in the US military are not likely to get any better now that it appears that our nation is preparing for potential conflicts with other big powers as well as terrorist organisations or local rebel groups in countries like Afghanistan or Iraq.
The Fire of War Is Spreading
At least officially acknowledging hunger as an issue in the military, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has also taken small steps to ease the financial strains on military families. However, the Pentagon is unwilling to tackle an issue that big. Pentagon officials and military base commanders frequently deny that hunger exists among their subordinates, said Abby Leibman, chief executive officer of MAZON. They may even deter families from seeking aid when they need food assistance.The sergeant I previously mentioned, Daniel Faust, told me that his coworkers and trainees frequently refuse to ask for help, even though their incomes barely support their families, out of concern that they will appear needy or because they are unsure that the military services they are offered will be helpful. In fact, a recent RAND Corporation study on military hunger indicated that several soldiers were concerned that asking for food aid would endanger their careers.
I’m fortunate that I haven’t needed to request government food assistance. I have, however, seen dozens of officers, enlisted soldiers, and family members brush off such issues by blaming the military’s debt problems on illiteracy, immaturity, or a failure to manage stress in healthy ways. Rarely do you hear someone in this community lament the fact that military pay simply isn’t enough to meet families’ essential requirements.
In the end, there are more reasons to ignore food demands in the military than just food. In the absence of competent mental healthcare or… well, so much else, individual cooking and group meals can help people and families cope. Combat veteran learning to overcome mental illness by taking up baking as a tactile way to remind himself that he is in the present and not back in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Syria. The family that gets together for meals in between deployments is taking advantage of the chance to bond. Eating meals with your family is one way parents can occasionally combat worry and despair in a time when military children are experiencing widespread mental-health issues.
In today’s stressed-out military, everything that improves quality of life and doesn’t require a professional degree is essential. Who knows how much excitement we’ve had during the years of the war on terror. You won’t be surprised to read that military suicide rates have reached an all-time high, and that access to mental healthcare is remarkably limited, perhaps, in its wake (especially to families whose kids have disabilities or mental illnesses). And let’s not even talk about child abuse or sexual assault, the fact that so many military children struggle in school, the rise in divorce, or even the increase in violent crime in the services during the past several years.
These issues did present in the military before to the start of the post-9/11 war on terror, but they got worse as the size and scope of our disastrous military operations and the Pentagon budget increased. We currently live in a situation that could end up being the worst possible one, what with the war in Ukraine and rising tensions with China over Taiwan. In other words, we did start this fire, to borrow a line from 1980s pop icon Billy Joel’s well-known song.
The minor military wage increase isn’t what really stands out about this year’s Pentagon funding, I assure you. It has to do with the way Congress is permitting the Department of Defense to commit to spending ever more astounding amounts of money over a long period of time on corporate armaments companies. For instance, the Army recently awarded Raytheon Technologies contracts worth $2 billion to replace (or potentially increase) the supply of missile systems that were delivered to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. You may therefore be sure that the CEOs of Raytheon and other such corporations won’t go hungry (though some of their own workers just might).
Those wealthy individuals aren’t even routinely held accountable for how they spend our tax money. For instance, the Pentagon signed an astounding amount of contracts between 2013 and 2017 with businesses that had been charged, fined, or found guilty of fraud. These dubious contracts cost more than $334 billion in total. Consider the number of military childcare facilities that could have been created with such funding.
Human Welfare, Not Corporate Welfare
Policymakers are accustomed to judging policies intended to help military families based on how “mission ready” such families will already be. You would think that since having access to food is such a basic requirement, everyone would consider it to be a human right. However, the Pentagon continues to portray food security as a tool for maintaining national security, as if it were yet another weapon to arm disposable service members.
The question for the military and the rest of us, in my opinion, is how it is possible that corporate weapon makers are in financial heaven and that too many members of our military are in a domestic variation of funding hell. Shouldn’t our main focus be on securing a decent existence for all of us here at home? The reasons many people joined the military in the first place have been eroded by problems like veteran unemployment, the epidemic, and the Capitol uprising.