In The Rise of the Military Welfare State, Jennifer Mittelstadt offers a disturbing view of the armed forces as a high-value target in political clashes over public assistance. Investigating the military is “vital to any full history of social welfare in the United States,” Mittelstadt writes, because politicians have pitted the military against civilians in the battle over social benefits, while barely attending to the needs of service members and their families. The battle over support dates back to the shift to an all-volunteer army in 1973 and continues to roil our politics. Among the recurring issues are the size and scope of government, the applicability of market principles to social policy, the determination of just benefits for military families and ordinary citizens, and the role of women in the military. The decisions taken in those years have radiated out like the halo of a chronic migraine, undermining our nation’s delivery of welfare and education and its support for gender equality.

The headache flared up during the later years of the Vietnam War. Military experts worried that the army—auxiliary personnel were essentially volunteer and less symbolic of the war—could implode under the weight of its many angry and alienated soldiers, some of whom were murdering their commanding officers, abusing drugs and alcohol, and brutalizing Vietnamese civilians. Upon returning home, veterans suffered unprecedented adjustment problems, and some are still struggling. At the same time, the families of servicemen below officer level were often supplementing their salaries with food stamps and welfare. When the draft became the focus of the rage over a misbegotten war, politicians recognized that it had to go in order to appease the middle class.

Mittelstadt’s comprehensive narrative shows the long reach of some familiar figures. Shortly after his election in 1968, President Richard Nixon created a commission whose members included Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman to plan an all-volunteer army based on the free-market ideas of the Chicago School. The commission proposed discontinuing the traditional benefits that officers received—including support for housing, family, and transportation—and replacing them with better salaries and cash bonuses for all personnel so that volunteers could buy what they wanted, and the army could get out of the business of provisioning and caretaking.

On the other side of the debate, Gen. William Westmoreland, the army chief of staff from 1968 to ’72, thought that military service could not and should not be, as we might say now, monetized. Soldiers were called upon to die for their country, and a little money, more or less, was not a dignified way to reward that commitment. Westmoreland wanted the army to take care of its own so that volunteers understood they belonged to a responsive institution. He advocated extending many of the officers’ benefits to all enlistees. Whereas Nixon’s economists saw Westmore­land and his ideas as paternalistic, most soldiers preferred an army that provided housing, medical care, job training, and supports for families to one that dispensed cash handouts. Westmoreland won this round of the battle with the Chicago Boys, and his Army Family model was reaffirmed in 1976, with an expansion of benefits for volunteers. These changes helped improve the reputation of the army after the terrible years of Vietnam and eased its transition to an all-volunteer force.

No policy is implemented in a vacuum, Mittelstadt emphasizes repeatedly. As the army’s personnel shifted from draftees to volunteers, its members also began to shift from partially middle class and white to largely poor and minority. The educational level of the volunteer force also dropped, a sign that poor and minority youths were trapped in substandard schools. Army accounts of chaotic behavior reflected the military’s dim view of its volunteers, blaming them for being unable to shed the problems of poverty that had followed them from civilian life. In 1978, even with better salaries, servicemen and -women were redeeming a large number of food stamps at commissaries. Relatedly, in 1979, 50 percent of military wives were working—an increase of 20 percent from 1970. These women generally thought that the army saw them as problems rather than as committed partners working to supplement their husbands’ poor wages. Their employment led to an increased demand for childcare and other family services.

As if this weren’t enough, critics of the all-volunteer force argued that the volunteers themselves were compromising the manly ideals of military service. At the same time, the growing number of African Americans in the ranks prompted worries that the nation was heading toward having a majority-black army. But the apparently more intractable anxieties were about the military’s “feminization.” Soldiers’ families increasingly wanted and needed social services for the same kinds of difficulties that other American families faced: debt, divorce, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and raising children in a family where both parents were working. The free marketers countered that social services bred dependency and furthered feminization of the institution and the volunteers themselves. Former Marine Corps officer and Virginia senator James Webb feared the menace of single-mother soldiers and wondered whether the country was about to “turn the Army into a baby sitting service.” The small but growing number of women volunteering also allegedly interfered with discipline and eroded the soldierly ideal. Webb’s solution was to keep women out of combat.

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Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a mudslide of money to the army. Reagan made the armed forces an active part of a foreign policy aimed at restoring military brawn and heating up the fight against communism. The demographics of the all-volunteer army continued to tilt toward a disproportionately high representation of African Americans and growing numbers of women. Meanwhile, army wives, especially officers’ wives, started to express their own version of feminism. They no longer wished to be dragooned into serving as the unpaid drivers of the welcome wagons, the organizers of daycare, the managers of bake sales, and the purveyors of advice and hand-me-down clothing. Nor did they wish to quietly fume any longer about bad housing and schools, expensive medical care, and long deployments. They were fed up with the assumption that army wives had to take anything and everything for the team or risk being ostracized for having a bad attitude, thereby jeopardizing their husbands’ chances for a promotion. As much as these demographic, educational, and attitudinal changes perturbed the powerful, they still had to, as Donald Rumsfeld would say in a different context, work with the army they had, because the draft would not 
be reinstated.

Reagan responded to the volunteers’ concerns, but by providing services infused with evangelical Christian beliefs about the structure and purpose of family life. Gen. John Wickham, in charge of the army’s family programs after 1983, worked closely with James Dobson and his Focus on the Family organization to deepen the role of the church in the army overall, and particularly to strengthen “the institutions of marriage and parenthood for those serving in the military.” Wickham, Dobson, and others supported a model in which husbands made the decisions and wives complied. Prayer and Christian support groups worked to keep families together in the face of separations, violence, alcoholism, and child abuse. Dobson and his foundation also did a brisk business selling his books, tapes, and audiovisual presentations to the army in the 1980s, and although Dobson was eventually sued for conflict of interest, he was not convicted.

Wickham and others thought that military families, imagined as traditionally Christian, were deserving of their services, whereas civilians were not. Conservatives “both in the military and outside” contrasted a “supposedly moral army family and a putatively immoral, decaying civilian family.” And within the military, the help offered to women held them to ideals of behavior in direct conflict with their professional responsibilities and needs.

With Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, the allegedly immoral and decaying civilian family ran head-on into the new administration’s promise to shrink government and enforce a standard of “personal responsibility.” Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, but he also reduced military benefits. The “Washington Consensus,” to which Clinton fervently subscribed in those days, insisted that the market did everything better. It’s well known that Clinton privatized combat (thereby “growing” Blackwater and other corporations supplying mercenaries) and many in-house military services like food and laundry. But he also privatized many of the military’s family benefits, including housing and medical care. After waiting in the wilderness for years, the free marketers had finally found their champion. Psychologists, in step with the economists, argued that families would be better off solving their own problems than being dependent on a government agency. Westmoreland’s Army Family model quickly changed from being a well-cared-for family to a self-reliant one.

Privatization schemes typically promise savings but rarely deliver. In the case of military housing, the army gave large amounts of government property to real-estate developers, at the same time guaranteeing them platoons of customers. On the books, the giveaway wasn’t counted as an expenditure and looked like a substantial cut in military expenses. But it was, of course, a large transfer of valuable real estate. Furthermore, the policy change took housing out of the military’s control and put it in the hands of one of several multinational corporations. At the same time, the large overall government department that had provided meals and snacks, game rooms, and counseling for married couples turned itself into a private corporation that opened a chain of restaurants and even a number of gambling parlors outside the United States.

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Probably the most hallowed benefit that the services receive is the version of the GI Bill that Reagan reactivated with great ceremony, and at significant cost, in 1986. Its purpose was less to entice men and women to join, or to reward them for their sacrifices, than to refurbish the image of the army as a respectable institution. Army brass, knowing full well that the bill would not improve recruitment rates, nevertheless thought it worth the expense because, as Mittelstadt writes, it would “dislodge the ‘dummy’ and the ‘dregs’ images plaguing the army.”

Its consequences have been numerous, some intended, many of them terrible. Reagan used the cost of the new GI Bill to justify large offsetting cuts in education grants to civilians, even as he increased their “opportunities” to borrow. His goal was not only to legitimate the army but to make the cost of higher education a private responsibility. In the 1980s, grants dropped from 80 percent of the federal money spent on education to 50 percent, even as college costs were rising precipitously. The value of Pell Grants also declined—whereas the grants had more than covered the cost of college tuition in the 1970s, they covered less than 54 percent of it in 2011.

A perhaps less well-known consequence of Reagan’s GI Bill has been the sudden flourishing of for-profit colleges and their scores of abusive practices. Suzanne Mettler’s Degrees of Inequality (2014) is an invaluable study of this distressing phenomenon. A permanent GI Bill guaranteeing federal money to veterans making the transition to civilian life was irresistible to entrepreneurs—just as it had been after World War II, when regulations had to be passed to stop the shady practices of the schools that the bill had spawned. Students attending these for-profit institutions on the GI Bill have been paying as much as four times what a community college would have cost, often unaware that the educational credits they were earning could not be transferred to traditional schools. In 2011, lobbyists for the industry and their colleagues in Congress repeatedly blocked Representative Maxine Waters from regulating institutions that preyed on poor people from districts like hers.

The emergence of online classes in the 1990s brought new financial opportunities, such as eliminating the need for a physical campus and reducing the role of teachers, and generated even more profit. In 1992, Congress stipulated that an institution of higher education had to offer at least 50 percent of classes on a campus to receive federal aid. Congress dropped that rule in 2006, and during the following five years online colleges doubled their enrollments and their profits; the loan-default rate of their students also doubled. For-profit colleges took to recruiting veterans to recruit other veterans on the GI Bill. Although these institutions only enroll 8 percent of all US college students, 30 percent of the 1.4 million vets who have used the bill have enrolled in for-profit schools. For-profits collected $8.2 billion from the 2009 GI Bill. Several have failed recently, and others are under investigation. Veterans who attended schools that failed are considered to have used up all of their GI Bill benefits.

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If the current disreputable educational policies and institutions have their roots in Reagan’s agenda for a respectable military, so too does the military’s ongoing unwillingness to take steps to protect the women—and men—in its ranks from sexual assault. This failure is particularly acute at a time when women are volunteering in record numbers and are poised to take on combat duties. The military’s continuing enthusiasm for submissive Christian wives and commanding husbands, and its admiration for women who stoically endure hardships, are important factors in its failure to discipline the disproportionate number of serial rapists in its ranks. It refuses to move the adjudication of rape cases out of the regular chain of command, as New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has proposed with her Military Justice Improvement Act, under which victims would report to an officer other than the unit commander. This would have several effects, including making the reporting of such incidents more likely by eliminating the embarrassment of revealing it to a commander. (According to estimates, only 25 percent of such incidents are currently being reported.) Changing the reporting procedures would also help keep complaints from being ignored in order to preserve the unit’s reputation or to protect the accused. The military argues that doing so would weaken its authority, although Canada and many of our other allies have adopted the practice. In 2012, several US servicewomen who had been assaulted filed suit against the military for not providing them with a safe work environment. The military successfully defended the position that rape was an occupational hazard.

Revelations of the high levels of sexual assault have coincided with women beginning to overcome the barriers to serving in combat positions. By 2010, some were already effectively participating in ground combat, although regulations still prohibited it. That year, Adm. William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command, officially requested female troops to accompany Army Rangers in Afghanistan on the raids of houses where suspected Taliban members were hiding. These raids had violated the customary seclusion afforded Muslim women and were creating rising hostility among the Afghans. Trained female soldiers, called “cultural support troops,” were to be attached to units to minimize the possibility of cultural of­fenses, while also gathering information from local women. Gayle Lemmon’s Ashley’s War (2015) details the military’s attempts to make home invasions culturally acceptable, including having female soldiers search Afghan women for weapons and give Jolly Ranchers to frightened children.

Last summer, two women completed the infamously brutal training program for Army Rangers. Now, with the Pentagon’s recent announcement that, starting in January, combat roles in all branches of the armed forces will be open to women, military commanders will be working with even more female recruits. Wars will inevitably continue to involve more and more civilians, giving women’s presence and experience a particular value. To integrate women successfully—­and safely—into equal combat positions, the military will need to transform its culture so thoroughly that sexual predators will stand out as deviants, not just as good ol’ boys. That will be no easy feat, given the military’s reliance on training that typically taunts recruits with the fear of performing “like a woman.”

In addition to taming the historic misogyny of the military, the Pentagon and Congress must come to some humane consensus about the material, psychological, and medical support that soldiers require. In March 2012, in Kandahar Province, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales covered his uniform with an Afghan shawl and attacked two villages near his base. He executed 16 people: four women, four men, and eight children. While it’s not at all clear that a social worker or a Christian counselor could have prevented Bales from committing murder and then desecrating many of the corpses, the military’s decision to stick “self-reliant families” with the burden of producing and nurturing its servicemen and -women has left them to struggle with their own demons. Bales was on his fourth tour of duty and had been in trouble for violence and alcohol shortly after he joined the army in 2002, and again in 2008. He suffered from PTSD and a brain injury from his time in Iraq. He and his wife could not manage their mortgage payments and had put their house in Tacoma on the market. The recent US Army report on Bales says that he had “expressed some unhappiness in his marriage and some financial challenges.” He was also drinking heavily, using sleeping pills and steroids, and behaving erratically and violently. Debt, marital problems, drug and alcohol abuse: Bales and his wife were supposed to solve these problems by themselves. The large number of suicides, and the even larger number of men and women deeply damaged by our wars (as well as by others in the service), attest to the callous use that presidents, military commanders, elected officials, businessmen, and economists have made of these soldiers over the years. Politicians and military leaders have draped themselves in yellow ribbons and exhorted us to support the troops, while busily advancing their own careers.