What Does Our Nation Want?

For it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, and “Chuck ‘im out the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot,

An’ it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please,

Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

— From “Tommy” by Rudyard Kipling

Before breaking for the holiday recess, the House and Senate both approved The Ryan-Murray Budget Compromise Act of 2013.  The bill creates the framework for budget issues for the next two years and is designed to eliminate the partisan in-fighting that caused our nation to lurch from “fiscal cliff to fiscal cliff” and reached its zenith (or nadir depending on one’s view) with the government shutdown last fall.

To many, the compromise is a good news/bad news piece of legislation.  The good news is that the Congress promises to do its fundamental job — authorize and appropriate funds for the functioning of government.  The bad news is that it does not take on any of the difficult fiscal challenges facing our nation.  Except one.  The Act includes a provision to decrease the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) for military retirees that are younger than 62 every year until they reach that age.  Beginning in December 2015, every serving military person and retiree under age 62 will be impacted.  The reasoning was that personnel costs are allegedly escalating out of control and eating up too much of the Pentagon’s budget.  The “entitlements” (more on that later) that retired military personnel are receiving are “out of control,” or so the reasoning goes, and therefore the military services cannot properly finance and build modern equipment or even provide proper training for currently serving forces.  The sequester and other budget cuts, of course, have nothing to do with it.  Apparently, needing people to man the new equipment has nothing to do with it either because if those people do not feel that they are being properly treated, then they will leave.

In  the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I am a twenty-eight year veteran of the Navy and my spouse is a twenty year veteran.  Depending on what source you look at, the impact of the change to COLA is minimal or will have a major financial impact on those leaving the service following their retirement.  Plenty has been written on that, including editorials from major news organizations that it is a “minor” inconvenience and the rebuttals from veterans groups that it is a “major” breach of faith.

I do not intend to get into the dollars and cents arguments.  I intend to take a different view as to what it all does, or at least could, mean.  First however, I would like to take issue with two points often made in defense of the Congressional action.  One is that the military, especially retirees, have too many “entitlements” and that it is not fair to the rest of the citizenry since the pension model used by the military is “antiquated” and not in keeping with current business practices.

Let’s be clear, the military, active or retired, receives no, zero, nada, zilch in the way of “entitlements.”  They do have a benefit package that is designed to keep people in the military for twenty years or more.  Look at it as an attempt to keep people around in order to get a return on the investment spent in training and equipping those people to be the best fighting force in the world.  Additionally, regardless of “best business practices”, the last time I looked the military was not a business.  Trying to compare it to any corporation fundamentally shows a complete lack of understanding about what the life of a service member is like.

The second point is that many argue that in times of tough financial decisions, everyone must do their “fair share.”  I note that the Congress chose to only put the fair share burden on folks that have literally offered to lay down their lives for the rest of the country.  After twelve years of war, the only sacrifice asked of the citizens of the United States that are not in uniform or have family members in uniform is to…. is to…. is to….. On second thought I cannot think of a single sacrifice asked of the rest of the country to support the war effort, other than President Bush encouraging people to show the courage to go to the mall and carry on with their normal lives and to spend money to keep the economy going.  I think that service members have already done their “fair share.”

However, I would like to take a different approach to the questions, and get to the real point of this piece.  The United States must decide what kind of military it wants to have as we move through the twenty-first century.  Whereas I am not claiming that there are no economies to be had in the way that the leadership in the Pentagon currently spends money, I am saying that a global fighting force able to reach anywhere in the world and succeed does not come cheaply.  To train and equip a force with the capabilities that we currently possess, and to succeed in the endeavors the American people think important, is expensive.  That expense includes paying service members a wage that allows them to take care of their families and it includes providing benefits that entice combat experienced and well-trained leaders, officer and enlisted, to stay in for a career.  As my former boss RADM Wayne E. Meyer would say in terms of desired capabilities to be built into warships, “she costs what she costs.”  In other words, if you want a given capability it is going to cost a certain amount.  If you do not want to spend that money, then you will not get the capability.

Among other proposals percolating through the halls of the Pentagon is one that is oft touted in editorials and opinion pieces.  That is to do away with the current retirement system and move to a “401-K type” system where service members essentially pay for their own retirement (with some matching funds from the government), are invested after their initial commitment, can leave at any time with some retirement income, and regardless of years served, no one can draw upon it until age 62.  The details are to be worked out, but all of us are probably in similar plans so we understand the basic concept.

If such a plan is adopted, you will see the slow destruction of our military.  Let’s think about this.  Take a typical mid-grade officer or senior enlisted.  They have about 8-10 years experience and the nation has invested a lot of money in training them and equipping them to be the best in the world.  They likely have a wife (or husband) and two children, with the promise of more on the way.  Why in the world would they risk their lives by going off to Afghanistan or Iraq or some other foreign land for a year at a time, every other year, to get shot at and possibly killed or maimed for life when we offer them the same retirement plan as the neighbor who has a nine to five job, comes home every night to his family, and does not risk his life on a continuing basis?  Most people do not join the military for the money.  Some will stay on because of a sense of duty and because they enjoy the camaraderie, adventure and excitement or some other personal motivation.  Young people are young people and there is much appeal in joining the military.  As many of us know, however, when we start to get older and take on the responsibilities of a family, our priorities often change and with that would inevitably come a re-evaluation of making a career in the military.  Thus, given continued recruiting efforts,  we would probably have sufficient numbers of new recruits to fill the ranks (I for one never thought about retirement benefits when I first entered the Navy), but at some point we will begin to lose our mid-grade leaders that are vital to effectively leading troops into battle and on missions of high importance.

If we truly want to save money, go back to the draft.  It would also create the “citizen army” that many think we ought to have in the first place.  But it would not be the same fighting force we have today.  I served in the era of the draft, but thankfully most of my service was in the all volunteer force (AVF).  With no disrespect to those that served during the draft, many of whom were great soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, the AVF is across the board a far more professional force capable of the successes our nation has had since its implementation.  The citizen in me thinks a draft is a good idea, but the professional sailor that I was knows that the AVF was far and away a better idea.  However, it does not come cheaply and thus my point, the nation must decide what kind of military it wants and then be willing to pay for it.

In the post-Vietnam era, many administrations (Republican and Democrat) have taken the approach that we need to keep our technical and technological edge and thus money for the military should be spent on research, development and procurement of “things.”  Cut people because they are expensive and we can always get people when we need them, or so the theories go.  Time and again we forget that it takes people to operate that equipment and to actually go in harm’s way and that if they are not properly trained, and just as importantly, experienced, then our nation has wasted a lot of money on equipment that cannot be used to its full potential — not to mention the lives that are lost until we figure it out.

If we want a “citizen army” of conscripts augmenting a small core of neglected professionals in time of war (the model our nation used until the Korean War) then so be it.  However, we cannot be a major player in world affairs today with that type of military.

Undoubtedly there are areas of savings within the military budget that can help the nation reel in some of its expenditures and get back on a firm financial footing.  There are probably areas where retirees can contribute more, but without giving the impression that the nation is reneging on its contract with those willing to risk their lives.  Note that the budget compromise impacts no other group with a contract with America.  No changes to Medicaid, Social Security or other citizen-government agreements.  I would speculate that they chose military retirees because they “had to do something” to show they are trying to reign in expenses, but figured that since by one account only 0.45% of Americans serve in the military now (as opposed to 11.2% in World War II and 4.3% during the Korean War), they would be facing a very small group of citizens pushing back on their decision.  Most people just are not impacted, aware, or care.

My basic point remains.  Regardless of the dollar amounts or motivations of Congress, the real issue is not how much retirees should be paid.  Rather it is more fundamental.  What kind of military does the nation want?  What do we think our place in the world will be or should be?  Do financial constraints take precedence over being a world military power?  Is military power even relevant anymore?  These are the questions that should be answered first, and then we find out what “she costs.”


3 Comments on “What Does Our Nation Want?”

  1. Mike West says:

    Tom- as always, good blog. But it seems to me that you left out another possible approach– the one of changing the rules so that “the rules have changed and the changes apply to everyone who enters the Services tomorrow and later,” and we’d keep the current rules as are for those already in the system.

    I also think your comment of “…we cannot be a major player in world affairs today with that type of military” (referring to an draft type force) is a bit disengenuous. We were certainly in the “top 2” until the draft ended– why would it be different today?

    • Tom says:

      As usual, insightful comments. Thanks. Changing the system for those that enter the services knowing what they are signing up for is reasonable. However, that is not what they did. They changed it for those already in the service and/or already retired. Not to mention that I still think in the long run, if they go with the “401-K type” retirement it will still have the impact I outlined. There are probably other ways to go to get the financial burdens under control while still providing for our service members, but so far, I have not heard of any that make sense to me.

      As to being a major military power during the draft, you are basically correct, but I don’t think any of us that lived through the draft/Vietnam era would want to go back to those conditions for a professional military. Many more factors were at play during that era than just the draft, but why risk it? And in my view, the world has changed since then and the nature of our opponents has changed.

      • Mike West says:

        Don’t mean to beat this to death, but… a benefit of a draft type military that doesn’t ever seem to get much mention in these discussions is the simple fact that it is good for the Nation to have people who have served living in and throughout all parts of society. No matter whether you’re a Harvard MBA who does 3 years a Supply Officer or a welder in Kansas who workedin the Motor Pool, the fact that you served matters, pure and simple. And a secondary benefit here is the knowledge and experience these people bring to their communities, states, etc. should they ever choose to get involved in public service.

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