SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Does the Military Treat Soldiers Like Children?

Why Doesn’t the Pentagon Let Its Employees Be All They Can Be?

The U.S. military isn’t supposed to allow child soldiers to enlist (though reality can differ). So why does it treat recruits like children?

Other than religious avocations, it’s impossible to think of another major employer that asks as much of prospective workers as the Pentagon, yet offers so little. Salaries are lower than for comparable private-sector jobs. The skills one acquires don’t translate easily to other fields. The risks couldn’t be higher. But most baffling, for a force supposedly dedicated to defending our freedom, is that they get little freedom of their own.

You’ve heard the drill sergeant line in movie boot-camp scenes: “You are now the property of the United States of America.” That’s true. Once signed up, soldiers and sailors can be assigned anywhere, to any job, completely at their commanders’ discretion. Sometimes they take your skills, desires or ambitions into consideration. Not always.

Active duty, recruiters tell young men and women, lasts two to five years — after which they’re supposed to wind up in the reserves, free to go home unless there’s a national emergency. But the President can invoke the “stop-loss” provision, which means you can get stuck as long as eight.

It’s time for the military to catch up to the modern workplace.

American workers are getting more of a raw deal in many ways: lower wages and benefits, companies that ignore the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, no more pensions. Yet the fraying of the postwar labor-management social contract has also provided employees with greater flexibility. You may have to work three crappy jobs to make ends meet, but crappy jobs are easy to replace. You can move to another city and probably find three crappy jobs there. You certainly don’t have to worry about one of your crappy employers shipping you off to Afghanistan, much less coming home in a coffin.

The military’s insistence on treating its workers like property to be disposed of at whim is obsolete, making it increasingly difficult — even in a high-unemployment economy — to compete for recruits.

One example making recent headlines is the Air Force’s increasingly severe shortfall of fighter pilots. A new signing bonus totaling nearly a quarter million bucks (albeit spread over nine years), isn’t enough to compensate for starting salaries ($34,500 to $97,400) — not when the airlines are paying a median salary of $103,210 to commercial jet pilots. Nor are benefits like lower taxes and on-base housing.

“The military is difficult on the family with all the moving around,” Rob Streble, a former Top Gun and an official of the union that represents US Airways pilots, told The Los Angeles Times. “I added more stability by joining the airline.”

“People have no idea how hard it is when you have to move your family all the time,” admits John Wigle, a former F-15 pilot who is now a program analyst in the USAF’s operations, plans and requirements directorate.

Freedom was a determining factor for me.

The recruiter manning the desk at the Army Recruiting Office in Kettering, Ohio was way into me when I walked through the door at age 18. I had what they’re looking for: I was human, sentient, and ambulatory. I was also a catch: a straight-A engineering student who’d gone to an Ivy League school on full scholarship. When Reagan slashed financial aid for me and millions of other college students, I considered other options.

I aced the Army aptitude test. This didn’t surprise me, considering the lugs sitting in the test center next to me. Anyway, I test great. I drew the attention of a big über recruiter for the entire Midwest who wouldn’t stop calling. He made a lot of promises. We’ll fast-track you for officer! When you get out, we’ll pay your college tuition! What’s that, you want to draw cartoons for Stars and Stripes, just like Bill Mauldin during World War II? Sure, why not?

As a child of divorce, I’d learned to get promises in writing. Which, of course, military recruiters can’t and won’t do. (At the time, the Army paid “up to” $5,000 a year for college. Columbia was $13,000.) Sure, despite Reagan’s efforts, we weren’t at war. So getting killed was unlikely. But they could send me anywhere in the world, assign me to any job they wanted (from a military website today: “The Military will make every effort to match your interests and aptitudes with its needs. However, job assignments are ultimately made based on Service needs, as well as individual skills and test scores”), and the bottom line was, there’d be nothing I could do but salute and say yessir. That was the end of my flirtation with a military career. I wanted the basic freedom to choose where I lived and what I did for work.

I’m not alone. 89% of young Americans say they’d never consider a military career.

It will be a bummer for military officers, by temperament the biggest control freaks ever, but sooner or later they’re going to have to face reality: slavery is over. If you want to find quality sailors and soldiers, you have to treat them like adults. Let recruits choose their positions and where they live. Act like they’re workers. Which they are. For example, why can’t soldiers put in for vacation as opposed to applying for leave? If their chosen job is no longer needed, fine — they should be free to go. Yes, even during wartime — at least during the optional wars of choice the United States has fought since 1945.

During an invasion or serious attack against the U.S. by another nation, obviously, all bets are off. But don’t worry — that hasn’t happened since 1812.

(Ted Rall’s website is His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)


6 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Does the Military Treat Soldiers Like Children?

  1. Congratulations, Ted, for putting together one of the few essays that dares pull back the curtain from the neo-con utopia that has sprouted within the US military … any American who believes that military service today involves “protecting Americans’ freedom and way of life” is either a jackbooted neo-con thug, or seriously deranged … military service perpetuates corporate welfare for defense contractors, while those who enlist are readily and criminally ignored by society and the US government (via the neglect inflicted on veterans by those who promise them a rose garden thru the snake-oil salesmen masquerading as caring recruiters) …

    I am one who bought into serving (also after Reagan and his cohorts swiped my financial aid), and I was lucky that my 20-year USMC career involved less than 6 months in a combat theater (I was stationed on Okinawa during Desert Shield/Storm, making me “one of the few” active duty Marines who did not deploy to the MidEast in 1990-91, and “the luck of the draw” found me with a Camp Lejeune-based unit that was not kept in Iraq after the inital shock-and-awe, affording me the opportunity to retire before the desk-bound Pentagonists sent my unit back a year later in the first round of the decade-long shell game inflicted on servicemembers to keep hot bodies on duty in Iraq & Afghanistan) …

    Today, if any young man or woman tells me they are considering enlisting in the military, I give them the cold, hard facts about what to expect … and will refer them to speak to others who were deployed to the MidEast multiple times since 2001 … while some stone-cold jarheads would accuse me of treason or cowardice for my truthful narrative on service in today’s military, I would rather convey the realities of military service than romanticize … Hemingway’s stories of wartime are exactly what Barnes and Noble classifies them — pure unadulterated FICTION …

    I think that Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, et al, should be tried for war crimes, and — when found guilty, and rightfully so — sentenced to a life of personal, menial, indentured servitude in support of those who returned from Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. less than whole …

    It’s time for the snake-oil salesmen of the Pentagon to stop preying on children naive enough to believe that military service benefits anyone, other than defense contractors flush with millions of misspent “Defense dollars”

  2. It’s too bad the military, like all of our institutions, has gotten so fucked up.

    But, it still does a lot of good as far as putting paychecks in a lot of pockets. As a socialist make-work redistributionary program it sucks; but, it’s about the only game in town.

  3. That and Corrections, right? Between the military and D.O.C., there’s your rural jobs program. Yay

  4. Aaron …

    I sincerely hope that your posts truly drip with the sarcasm you should have intended … let me point out that “putting paychecks in a lot of pockets” does not a convincing argument make — ESPECIALLY when the USSR tried the same thing (albeit using conscription rather than a volunteer military), and the republics established upon the break-up of the USSR continued the game … the amount paid to enlisted service members (NOT commissioned or warrant officers) by the USA is a pittance compared to the financial haul by defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies, Harris Communications, L3, etc. (and no, I did not forget KBR and Halliburton, and the criminal neglect they perpetrated on the forces in Kuwait, Iraq & Afghanistan — glad I did not suffer electrocution in the shower!!!) …

    I agree that the military has gotten “fucked up” — just another warped Reagan legacy … like the results of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” (prisons overflowing with the poor, whose lives have been mortgaged to line the pockets of privatized “corrections” contractors) …

    Obviously, we did not learn from the Great Depression … as we have entered another “Robber Baron” era, just like the deacdes preceding October 1929 …

  5. A great percentage of the people who “volunteer” for the military do so because they feel that there is little else available for them. Our military needs to be conscripted, because there is a need to have people in the military who represent the variety of people in America. The reason the military treats them as children is because many of them have only a few years distancing them from actually being children, and the fact that many of them are as ignorant as children – This is my rifle, this is my gun – my rifle’s for fighting, my gun is for fun!

  6. Ted,

    The military has to treat their members as children because, quite simply, too many of them are children (not agewise, but emotionally, spiritually, behaviorally) to do anything else.

    The military, much like religion, is predicated heavily on a strict hierarchy and a lot of ritual.

    The people running the show in both cases know it’s all razzmatazz bullshit to distract the children. Look at the people in the military who appear in dress uniforms. Have you seen them? They put every diva I’ve ever seen to shame. Here’s five rows of tiny medals on their chest. Here’s the big-ass hat. Look at how everyone salutes them!!!!!!

    It’s all the touchpoints of how you manipulate and control children’s behavior. The teachers didn’t just hand you a print-out and say, “Here’s your schedule.” No, everything was motivational. Spell 10 words right in a row, get a star! You’re a Blue Triangle, so remember that for when I call you all up in smaller groups. You’re a Blue Triangle. Right now, I’m going to have the Red Circles line up. Let’s all take a time out! (And keep in mind, I loved my first grade teacher. She was absolutely wonderful. But she was indoctrinating us, plain and simple. This is how you have to behave in society or you’re going to end up incapable of surviving.)

    Flag salutes. Has their ever been a more pointless behavior (other than for indoctrination purposes)? Your country either earns your respect, and makes itself worthy of protection, in which case a daily recitation of your loyalty oath becomes unnecessary, or it’s simply forced obedience, a way to make sure everyone in the crowd is a sheep that does as told. In court, when the judge comes in, everyone stands. Why? To show respect for his office. Think about the logic of that for a minute.