Here's one way our President proposes to "support our troops": According to his 2005 budget, the extra pay our soldiers receive for serving in combat zones--about $150 a month--will no longer count against their food stamp eligibility. This budget provision, if approved, should bring true peace of mind to our men and women on the front lines. From now on, they can dodge bullets in Iraq with the happy assurance that their loved ones will not starve as a result of their bravery.
Military families on food stamps? It's not an urban myth. About 25,000 families of servicemen and women are eligible, and this may be an underestimate, since the most recent Defense Department report on the financial condition of the armed forces--from 1999--found that 40 percent of lower-ranking soldiers face "substantial financial difficulties." Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, reports hearing from constituents that the Army now includes applications for food stamps in its orientation packet for new recruits.
The poverty of the mightiest military machine on Earth is no secret to the many charities that have sprung up to help families on U.S. military bases, like the church-based Feed the Children, which delivers free food and personal items to families at twelve bases. Before 9/11, trucks bearing free food from a variety of food pantries used to be able to drive right on to the bases. Now they have to stop outside the gates, making the spectacle of military poverty visible to any passerby.
Market forces ensure that a volunteer army will necessarily be an army of the poor. The trouble is, enlistment does not do a whole lot to brighten one's economic outlook. Frontline battle troops, most of whom have been in the military for about a year, earn less than $16,000 a year--which puts them at about the level of theater ushers and Wal-Mart clerks. Even second lieutenants, at a starting salary of $26,000 a year, earn less than pest control workers and shoe repairers. So when the Bush Administration, in its frenzied rush to transfer more wealth to the already wealthy, hurts the working poor, you can count the troops among them. The 2003 Bush tax cut for the rich, for example, failed to extend a child tax credit to nearly 200,000 military personnel.
Well, they get all kinds of special benefits, don't they, like free housing and medical care? Yes, and that's a powerful attraction to the young men and women of America's working poor. But no one should confuse the U.S. military with a Swedish-style welfare state. The mother of a Marine reports that her son had to charge nearly $1,000 on her Visa card for items not issued by the military, like camouflage paint and socks. In 2003, Defense Department overseas schools for the children of military personnel closed a week early due to a lack of funds.
You might imagine that our "war President," as he styles himself, would be in a rush to enrich the frontline troops, but last August his Administration proposed to cut the combat pay bonus of $150 a month. Somebody must have pointed out that an election year was just around the corner, because this little trial balloon was quietly punctured. In fact, the 2005 budget offers to double the military death benefit received by families of the fallen from $6,000 to $12,000.
Sounds good. In fact, it may make death financially preferable to surviving in a damaged state. Bizarrely enough, veterans' disability benefits are deducted from their military retirement pay, giving the wounded a powerful incentive to die while they're young. The sorry condition of VA health services seems designed to accomplish the same thing, and those services are about to get a lot more inaccessible. In his 2005 budget, Bush proposes to raise veterans' health care costs--through increased drug co-payments and a new "enrollment fee"--thus driving an estimated 200,000 vets out of the system and discouraging another million from enrolling.
In the interests of maintaining a calm and dispassionate tone here, let's not talk about the morality of sending the poor to distant countries to die for undisclosed reasons while nickel-and-diming them every inch of the way. It will suffice to point out what a peculiar historical anomaly Bush's warfare state represents. Ever since the introduction of mass armies in Europe in the seventeenth century, governments have generally understood that to underpay and underfeed one's troops is to risk having the guns pointed in the opposite direction from that which the officers are recommending. Actually, modern welfare states, limited as they may be, are in no small part the product of war, i.e., of governments' attempts to appease the warriors and the class of people that supplies them.
In this country, for example, the Civil War led to the institution of widows' benefits, which were the predecessor of welfare in its Aid to Families with Dependent Children form. The German leader Bismarck, who was under pressure from socialists as well as the exigencies of war, instituted national health insurance. In the United States, World War II spawned educational benefits and income support for veterans. In the United Kingdom, it generated a far more generous welfare state than we have here, including free health care for all. Hitler built up a welfare state, too, including support for single women willing to produce fresh cannon fodder for his state of permanent war.
This has been the way of the world: If you want the working class to die for you, then you have to give it something in return.
So what is the Bush Administration thinking? Maybe those turkeys Bush passed out to the troops at Thanksgiving were supposed to substitute for decent military pay and veterans' benefits.
Or maybe the Administration is counting on more photo ops of the President in his flight jacket to soothe the underfed military families.
Or possibly the proposed new immigration plan, which would bring Mexicans in to work at substandard wages, could be used to restock the U.S. military with bracero-soldiers to whom $16,000 a year and a $12,000 death benefit will look like a major fortune. If the citizens get too demanding, you can always resort to an army of foreign mercenaries.
Or maybe the Bush Administration isn't thinking at all, and will be stunned when the endless refrain of "support our troops" turns around, in November, and bites it.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive. She is the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" and "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War."
Copyright 2004 The Progressive