Military Haves and Have-Nots

Privates should make more, generals should make less, in today's military

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Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

My great nephew recently reported to the local MEPS (military entrance processing station) and took the oath of office. He’s enlisting in the Marine Corps and I wish him all the best.

In November 2021, with him in mind, I wrote an article, “Should you join the U.S. military?” For him, the answer was yes, and I respect his decision.

Enlisting in the US military is a big step for any young adult. And there are certain benefits to it like health care, money for education, some kind of housing (or pay for housing), and of course job training and an identity, e.g “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

There are many drawbacks as well, the biggest, of course, being death.

One that we often don’t think of, though, is low pay, which is why Andrea Mazzarino’s article at TomDispatch is so telling. Mazzarino, a military spouse, reminds us that more than a few military members are “food insecure.” In other words, they often have to choose between paying their rent and other bills and going hungry, which is another way of saying that the military is a (distorted) reflection of American society.

Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article:

I recently interviewed Tech Sergeant Daniel Faust, a full-time Air Force reserve member responsible for training other airmen. He’s a married father of four who has found himself on the brink of homelessness four times between 2012 and 2019 because he had to choose between necessities like groceries and paying the rent. He managed to make ends meet by seeking assistance from local charities. And sadly enough, that airman has been in all-too-good company for a while now. In 2019, an estimated one in eight military families were considered food insecure. In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, that figure rose to nearly a quarter of them. More recently, one in six military families experienced food insecurity, according to the advocacy group Military Family Advisory Network.

You would think that a military with a colossal yearly budget of $858 billion would pay its troops enough so that they wouldn’t go hungry, but it simply isn’t so. Much of that colossal budget goes to the weapons makers (perhaps we should call them the wealth-takers?). Big companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. Meanwhile, Private Jones, or even Sergeant Smith, is left struggling to put food on the table.

This is a perennial problem. My dad told me how he made $30 a month in the CCC in 1937 even as Army privates were making $19 a month. Small wonder that so few young men leaving the CCC decided to enlist in the military, even after hearing rah-rah recruitment speeches, my dad noted wryly.

Contrast relatively low pay for enlisted troops with the high pay of general officers. The latter make six-figure salaries (with lots of perks) and retire with six-figure pensions. They also usually “sell” their military service to weapons makers after they spin through the revolving door of the military-industrial complex. Lloyd Austin is typical. After retiring as a general officer, he made roughly $1.4 million from 2016 to 2019 in executive compensation from Raytheon. That was, of course, in addition to a generous government pension that paid him another million or so.

No one expects now-Secretary of Defense Austin to have taken vows of poverty upon retirement, but he sure could pay closer attention to the needs of the troops under him. To put it simply, privates should make more and generals less in today’s military.

Young military members are much on my mind as my great nephew prepares for boot camp. Can’t we make sure that they have enough money so that they don’t have to choose between food and rent?

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.