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Ending Economic Conscription

How can we take on the American military machine? By starving it of recruits and building up the civilian welfare state.

Army recruits wear new black berets at the United States Army's 226th birthday celebration and beret ceremony, June 14, 2001 at Fort Hamilton in New York. Spencer Platt / Getty

The United States has eight hundred foreign military bases. The rest of the world combined has only seventy. Our nation’s leaders are the makers and breakers of combat, our presidents and generals the gods of war.

American militarism intensifies conflict and produces needless misery and bloodshed abroad. It also starves our own populace of resources that should be going to good public education, health care, housing, and jobs. For the wellbeing of people at home and elsewhere, the American left has a responsibility to oppose our nation’s military hegemony.

No doubt strong moral and ideological opposition to war and militarism are at the heart of any effective strategy. But we should also consider the tactical importance of ambitious social-democratic reforms like a federal jobs guarantee, strong unions, and the universal social provision of higher education and health care. These reforms may not put an end to American empire, but they do have an important effect: they make it harder for the military to recruit from the domestic working class. To combat the reign of the American military abroad, we need to end economic conscription at home.

When domestic economic prospects are grim, the military has no problem recruiting soldiers. When those prospects improve, recruitment falls. How do we know? We can see a micro-version of this process happening right now.

This year, for the first time in thirteen years, the Army reported it was short thousands of recruits. This year’s unemployment rate is also the lowest we’ve seen in that same time period. These facts are related, and the military agrees.

“It’s a tough market out there,” said the Army’s deputy chief of staff. He meant it literally: in tight labor markets, when there are more jobs than workers, employers have to compete to attract labor. Meanwhile, workers have more options (which isn’t to say abundant, fantastic options), and they naturally choose the better jobs on offer — leaving employers who are offering comparatively bad bargains scrambling to fill positions. Hence the shortage of military recruits.

Part of the problem is that, by the standards of the US labor market, the military isn’t a totally bad economic bargain for working-class Americans. In fact, it’s a comparatively attractive option for many people, in particular because it offers a steady income, free college and job training, and a lifetime of public health care. In other words, it offers recruits some of the things a decent welfare state would give all its citizens.

Indeed, more soldiers report “benefits” as a major motivation for enlisting than any “call to serve.” It follows that if we give people better economic options in civilian society, they are less likely to join the military in droves.

This observation is important for the purposes of building an antiwar movement. A working-class background is the greatest demographic predictor of military service. People who serve in the military may not always enter with pro-war ideas in their heads, but they certainly encounter all kinds of justifications for America’s worldwide military presence and its endless overseas conflicts during their service.

Additionally, every working-class person who enlists has a whole network of friends and family members who become more likely to identify with the military and are therefore more vulnerable to right-wing “patriotic” pageantry and military chauvinism, including the mainstream GOP’s maudlin reverence for the American flag and Donald Trump’s promises to “bomb the hell” out of our enemies and make the military “so strong that no one will mess with us.”

Working-class support for the military is often overstated, but it is high enough to hamstring any antiwar movement angling for mass support — which is the only kind of antiwar movement that can win.

The more recruits the military has, the more deeply it embeds itself in working-class American life. This obviously presents an enormous obstacle to building opposition to war. And it is precisely the working class that must oppose war, because not only are workers the majority of society and the group with the actual leverage to force change, but they’re also the ones who fight and die in the wars themselves.

As Eugene V. Debs said, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.” In order for our society to achieve peace, working people must realize they’re being conned into war.

So how do we go about removing the economic incentive for joining the military?

Ensuring full employment is a great start. Full employment means that everyone who’s actively looking for a job can easily find one, which forces employers to compete with each other for hires, and gives workers more options and more power in the economy. Although unemployment is pretty low right now, there will inevitably be another economic crisis, and the gains made will evaporate. A better way to achieve full employment for the long haul is a federal job guarantee of some kind.

But wages aren’t only a natural effect of a tight or loose labor market — they also rise and fall based on the degree of organized class struggle. Strong unions, which can be built through a combination of rank-and-file union activism and pro-labor legislative reforms, are key to driving and keeping wages up, and therefore competitive with the military’s offerings.

And finally, wages by themselves aren’t enough to lure working people away from the military, which also pays for college and job training, and provides free medical care for the rest of a person’s life. How can the civilian job market compete with that? The answer is to provide things like college tuition, job training, and health care through universal federal-level social programs. We already have templates for these, as Medicare for All and free tuition at public universities are rapidly becoming some of the most wildly popular new policy ideas in the United States.

A combination of a jobs guarantee, strong unions, and universal social programs would put an enormous dent in the army’s program of economic conscription. There would still be an ideological battle to fight over American nationalism and militarism. But it would be easier to win if the military were less embedded in American working-class life — and it won’t be less embedded until working people stop gravitating toward the military out of economic self-interest. Social-democratic reforms therefore must be considered part of any serious antiwar or anti-imperialist strategy.