Jensen on Mittelstadt, 'The Rise of the Military Welfare State'

Jennifer Mittelstadt
Geoffrey Jensen

Jennifer Mittelstadt. The Rise of the Military Welfare State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. 344 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-28613-9.

Reviewed by Geoffrey Jensen (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, College of Security and Intelligence Studies) Published on H-War (August, 2016) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Being All It Can Be? The Army as a Social Welfare State

In The Rise of the Military Welfare State, Jennifer Mittelstadt tackles the rise, and if her analysis holds true, fall of the social welfare state in the army. The idea that a historically rather conservative institution such as the army has operated as a social welfare state for some time will strike some as odd or unlikely. For those nuanced in the subject, however, they recognize that the American army has always had some aspect of social welfare programs, whether official or not, within its confines. For example, the Civil War era saw informal educational programs for African American Union Army personnel along with the creation of a pension program for combatants.[1] Nor did the trend halt as time marched on. Indeed, as the American conscription army of the twentieth century continued to grow, so too did social benefits for its personnel. The new benefits were purposely deemed a “reward” for a soldier’s service to the country. This was an important political, and arguably psychological, distinction to make as it aided in not only justifying the expansion of social welfare benefits, but also served to separate the burgeoning social welfare state of the army from that of the civilian world. 

While the mushrooming of social entitlements during the conscription era was important, Mittelstadt contends that the army’s social welfare apparatus changed even more after the end of the draft and the creation of the all-volunteer force in the 1970s. With the draft gone, the army faced a tremendous manpower dilemma as it related to recruiting, and ideally, maintaining enough personnel to field a combat-ready force. Its remedy was to rely even more on social entitlements not to “reward,” but to entice new personnel to join the branch.

A theme that intersects with the attraction of new personnel by the way of social benefits is the struggle within the army’s leadership about how much care the branch should provide for its soldiers. The traditionalists, for instance, were composed of the older cadre of officers, including then-Chief of Staff of the Army General William Westmoreland, whose way of thinking championed the branch’s tradition of taking care of its own, which largely meant the creation of a social welfare system that eased the burden on its soldiers and families. During the rise of the all-volunteer force, they again grasped at this tradition, because they recognized that the army had to continue to grow its social welfare programs to garner the attention of potential new recruits. 

During the 1970s, the traditionalists ran into strong opposition from the group directly responsible for the creation of the all-volunteer force: the Gates Commission—nicknamed for its chair, Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates. The Gates Commission was composed of free market economists and politicians who viewed the government of the United States, and more specifically, its army, as in desperate need of an economic makeover. They believed the army should do away with or privatize its entitlement apparatus, with the ultimate goal being the introduction of cash payments and bonuses that would allow soldiers to choose where they received their benefits, such as health care, from.  The invasion of free market ideology into the army was also supported by a budding cadre of young army officers who held undergraduate and graduate degrees in business.

Can the introduction of a free market system in the army change its demographic composition? There were those within the army who certainly hoped so as they thought it could aid their internal struggle against the recruitment of “the dregs” of society. To be sure, the army has always struggled with the prospect of using what it considered to be substandard manpower, which depending on the era could include those deemed mentally, physically, racially, or anatomically (in this case based specifically on a soldier’s gender) unfit for duty, and whose service might impair the army's combat effectiveness. Nonetheless, it did so throughout the twentieth century when necessitated by the exigencies of war, most notably in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The particular conundrum the leaders of the all-volunteer force faced was the steady number of African Americans, many of whom were poor and undereducated, and women, who were better educated but were viewed as a readiness problem because of their gender, who were joining the ranks.[2] 

The army was not alone in its concerns; some sociologists, including Charles Moskos and Morris Janowitz, also worried about the ascension into the army of those “at the margin” of the American populace; additionally, they worried about the isolation of the white middle class from the branch. Their concern was less about racial superiority and more about representation. Moskos and Janowitz contended that the exclusion of middle-class whites prevented a “large segment of civilian society” from serving, which could lead to a societal disconnect between that group and the army (p. 83).

The reaction of the army’s leadership and its personnel to the issue had less to do with the concerns of sociologists than with its long-standing rejection of the notion that the branch should serve as a sociological apparatus for uplifting segments of the American citizenry. In the 1970s and later, this continuing concern led to the adoption of a racist, class-based, and sexist negative self-image that openly questioned the combat effectiveness of the changing demographic nature of the all-volunteer force. Simply put, some believed that the army was becoming too black, too poor, too undereducated, and too feminine for its own good.[3]

This negative self-image also affected the efforts of army traditionalists locked in a struggle against the swelling tide of free-market capitalism as well. Army traditionalists simply could not afford to have the branch appear to be nothing more than a civilian social welfare program or worse, a dumping ground for “the dregs.” In order to counter this image, they worked to distance the army from the benefits soldiers received from the social welfare apparatus of the civilian world. 

Army traditionalists' efforts were also bolstered by a powerful political force: President Ronald Reagan. The president sought to restore luster and a bit of military swagger to the army during the Cold War 1980s. The result was the dramatic increase in defense expenditures. This growth was not contained solely to the development of new weapons systems, or for that matter failed space defense programs, but also included improvements in pay and an increase in benefits for military personnel. The latter in particular was a rather slick political move by the president as he increased benefits for his soldiers while at the same time continuing a frontal assault on aspects of the civilian social welfare net created by the New Deal and Great Society. 

While Reagan waged war against communism and civilian social entitlements, the army worked to clean up its own self-perceived negative image through the creation of a new G.I. Bill (the Montgomery G.I. Bill) that it hoped would encourage a new generation of white middle-class citizens into the service. Whether the Montgomery G.I. Bill, succeeded in its quest to demographically reclaim the army is another matter. On the surface, the new educational entitlement did quiet some concerns about the army serving as an extension of the social welfare establishment, but internally, its leaders still grumbled that “the dregs” continued to enter its ranks. 

According to Mittelstadt, another powerful force for reform was the wives of officer and enlisted personnel. Missing a social apparatus to help deal with moves, hardships, babysitting, and other tasks necessary to survive in the ever fluid way of military life, army wives built their own. The philosophical mainstay for these women was Nancy Shea’s The Army Wife (1941). This work established the guidelines for how an army wife was supposed to act and live, and to do so in accordance with the best traditions of the United States Army; a wife, therefore, followed these general tenets because it was not only the army way, but it also and importantly aided the career advancement of her husband. 

By the 1970s, though, more-educated younger women, some motivated by the feminist movement, broke with tradition and demanded more from the army. They were joined by female former army personnel, some of whom had lost their positions within the ranks because they had become pregnant (during that time, pregnancy was grounds for immediate dismissal), in their growing call for change. Though conservative forces within the army sought to curtail the rising demands of wives, they failed to halt their momentum. After a series of symposiums and the creation of an “Army Family White Paper” by then Chief of Staff of the Army General John A. Wickham Jr., army wives netted gains in child care, housing, and counseling, along with the creation of other social benefits in the 1980s. 

It was during the 1980s when another player entered the debate over the growth of social welfare programs in the army: evangelical Christianity. For evangelical leaders, the army served as a potent ally in the war against godless communism and as a substantial recruiting base for its congregations across the country. Through their relationship with the branch, evangelicals also gained important access to the national policy apparatus of the Reagan administration. At the center of the budding relationship between evangelicalism and the army social welfare state was General John A. Wickham Jr. A born-again Christian, Wickham, Mittelstadt observes, not only established ties with evangelical Christian leaders, but sought to clean up the lack of Christian morality within the ranks by launching a crusade of sorts to root out pornography and excessive drinking on base (specifically targeting the Non Commissioned Officers Club and Officers Club), and even to curtail smoking. 

Though army wives gained much-needed reforms, and a sense of empowerment during the army’s turn toward evangelicalism, it came with a cost. The chaplain ranks within the branch swelled with evangelicals preaching a more conservative Christian philosophy that challenged the rising power of army wives by suggesting that they should behave as subservient supporters of their husbands. Mittelstadt also notes how the influence of evangelicals affected the image of army families in the community. Specifically, maintaining ties to Christianity was seen as necessary to the preservation of a spiritually and morally sound family; conversely, a lack of Christian spirituality was blamed when a relationship went bad or spousal abuse occurred. Despite the infusion of evangelical faith into the army during the 1980s, it continued to struggle, as did the rest of the country, with divorce, abandonment of families, child abuse, addiction, and other social calamities.       

Tying its moral reform agenda to a segment of the neoconservative movement was a sound political maneuver for those who championed social welfare changes in the army, but it did not, Mittelstadt demonstrates, ensure the continuation or ultimate protection of those reforms.  That proved to be the case after the fall of the Iron Curtain as the American military faced a steep drawdown of forces. Along with this reduction came the swift embrace by the army of “self-reliance” among its personnel and ultimately, the privatization of aspects of the military social welfare state. 

Privatization had always been the goal of those in Washington who viewed the army’s social welfare programs as unnecessary, wasteful, and not in line with the tenets of the free market. From time to time, it was even advocated by those who had sought the improvement of benefits for soldiers. For example, an After Action Review of Operation Desert Shield/Storm conducted by the army’s leadership discovered the overuse of family support groups by the families of enlisted personnel. Joining with the army’s leadership in criticizing these families were the wives of upper-echelon officers stationed at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania; whether intentionally or not, their decision to side with the army’s criticism aided those who sought to do away with large aspects of its social welfare system.

Nor did privatization prove to be a move carried out by one political party over the objections of another. The march toward privatization and the army’s new mantra of self-reliance, which meant the onus on taking care of one’s family rested with the family, not the army, was carried out through George H. W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations. For Mittelstadt, Clinton, operating under the concept of “reinventing government,” especially embraced the privatization movement and its potential to lessen the financial impact on the nation’s deficit. From 1990 to 2000, army service contracts almost doubled (from 13 billion in 1990 to 23 billion by 2000) as a result. While there were some within the ranks who voiced concerns, including the General Accounting Office, which openly questioned the math behind the belief that privatization would save the nation money, they were drowned out by the larger roar of the gospel of the free market and the quest to reduce the deficit. 

Mittelstadt observes that, after two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and with its steady embrace of “self-reliance” and privatization as firm as ever, the army underestimated the toll repeated deployments to the war zones of the Middle East would have on its personnel and their families, and that the privatization effort has failed to meet the needs of these personnel once they return home. Specifically, she notes that the growing number of deployments and the mental health injuries associated with them were too much for army families, operating under the mantra of self-reliance, to handle. As for privatization, it has not only failed to meet the needs of personnel, but it has also created problems. As an example, she cites the scandal at Walter Reed Hospital. Despite these issues, though, the army has continued to toe the line on self-reliance and privatization of support services, even while veterans’ groups have railed against them.

As the author observes, her work “raises more questions than it answers” (p. 16). This is not necessarily a bad thing, and is in fact the hallmark of a good study. I do wonder, though, about her strategy to separate the pre- and post-all-volunteer force eras from one another. On the one hand, it makes strategic sense for her to do so. It allows Mittelstadt to demonstrate a clean break in the idea of social welfare within the army. Still, I am not so sure that history always breaks so neatly, especially when it comes to concurrent eras and the people living in them. There is always some semblance of historical bleed-over from a prior period. I wonder, is that the case here? For instance, it would be tremendously helpful to know how soldiers, not their leaders or politicians, thought about the issue of social welfare benefits before the end of the draft. Did they ever stop viewing the benefits they received as “rewards”? For that matter, is there really a difference for them when it comes to the issue? Can an enticement also be a reward for a soldier? Or is it simply a higher-level political issue, as Mittelstadt’s study largely suggests? 

Another missed opportunity that emerges from the division of the two eras is the role that liberal reformers in Washington and aspects of the army’s leadership played in the branch’s transformation into a social welfare state. In many ways, and I think she would agree, the social welfare establishment existed in the army in part because of the use of the branch as a sociological instrument for reform in American society. In my opinion, the liberal reform-minded zeitgeist of the mid-twentieth century did not simply vanish. It had to morph into something. But what? Did it influence the army’s traditionalists and their belief in taking care of their own? 

Speaking of the traditionalists, they need to be better fleshed out. Were they always wed to the idea of taking care of their soldiers by way of social welfare mechanisms? Does their idea of how much reform to push change from era to era? Were there limits for them? A discussion of their values could go a long way toward establishing a deeper understanding about why the social welfare apparatus of the army developed the way it did.[3]

That said, The Rise of the Military Welfare State is a steady reminder of the promise and potential that war and society studies hold when it comes to our examination of the American military and the nation it endeavors to protect. Mittelstadt was willing to look beyond the battlefield to the boardrooms, homes, social organizations, churches, and even into a federal labor union to peer into issues connected to race, gender, class, and how they all collided to provide differing views over what is truly best for the health and well-being of America’s army. But this study is something far more. It is a frank discussion over the growing division of the sword and shield of the republic from a portion of the nation’s citizenry that also receives social welfare benefits. It is in many ways a debate over why one group deserves, and believes wholeheartedly it should receive, benefits, while the other should not. In reality, the two groups, especially when it comes to enlisted army personnel, who tend to make far less and sometimes have had to rely on civilian social welfare programs such as food stamps to get by, had a great deal in common. Yet, from their point of view there remains a gulf between themselves and citizens on welfare that prevents them from seeing any similarities. 

The justification for feeling better about oneself based on economic and social status is a class issue and Mittelstadt’s depicts it marvelously.  She is right not only to characterize it as such, but to point out that it robs the army of a potential political partnership with lower-class Americans (some of whom, as this study notes, end up serving in the military anyway) that could work together against the long-term dismantling of aspects of the social welfare framework of the United States and its army. The question is then, can the army, already charged with the defense of the nation from foreign and domestic threats, alter its philosophy enough to embrace the role of a social warrior as well?  For those who have examined its past on social issues, this is a haunting question with no simple answer.


[1]. For more on the informal programs of the Union Army, see Dudley Taylor Cornish, “The Union Army as a School for Negroes,” The Journal of Negro History 37, no. 4 (1952): 368-382.

[2]. On the larger issue of combat effectiveness and how it was used to prevent social reforms or the use of the military as a sociological instrument, see Sherie Mershon and Steven Schlossman, Foxholes and Color Lines (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1998).

[3]. For more on the liberal reform agenda of the mid-twentieth century see Mershon and Schlossman, Foxholes and Color Lines.

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