Memorial Day Reflections

What does it cost to use a U. S. citizen in the U. S armed forces?

That’s the question I want to ask. I know it cannot be answered in the form I have first asked it, but I have never heard it asked at all and that doesn’t seem good. To begin to ask it, I want to divide the costs into three periods of time: the cost of preparing him [1] for service; the cost of equipping and sustaining him during his service; and the cost of supporting him in civilian life after his period of service is ended. So: before, during, and after. I am aware that “after” might be a very long time.

vets 4

The U. S. government has the legal right to pass “draft legislation” and thereafter, to commandeer anyone who is physically able to fight or to support in some organizational way [2] those who are fighting. So for those eligible to be drafted, “serving your country” is something that can be done to you. It is also, of course, something you may choose.

I don’t know more about basic training than what they show in the movies and what people say who reflect on their experience of it, but I do know that the goal of the process is to get people to do without reflection things they might decide not to do at all if they were left to their own devices. That involves stripping off a lot of the individual traits that have enabled these men to know who they are. I think that is the official view. But it may also, depending on the person, involve stripping OUT of the person, some crucial part—something that needs to be there for the person to be functional.

If you picture this as “taking off civilian clothes” and “putting on a uniform” is seems like no more than a change of clothing. But there is more to being a soldier that wearing a soldier’s [3] uniform. If it were no more than that, it would be easy to think that you put a soldier’s gear on him and use him as a fighter and then bring him home and take off the soldier’s gear and put on civilian clothes and it’s all back the way it was.

Then there is the cost of sustaining these soldiers in theaters of combat. The costs of supply and of advanced weaponry and of medical care are very high. The costs to the families are high as well.

Since we are thinking only about costs—and deliberately ignoring the other parts of the dilemma—let’s ask how much it would cost to put a former soldier “back”—to restore him to the life he had before his active duty. And let’s just consider the commonly accepted notion that 10% of the men in the military see actual combat. [4] Restoring that 10% to who they were before may be simply impossible. But even just restoring each man to “adequate functioning” after he comes home could cost quite a bit.

vets 2Let’s consider some of the costs. If marriages that were perfectly adequate before the term of service are no longer viable after a soldier’s wartime experiences, then the costs borne by all parties, particularly the children, need to be considered. I have no idea how to calculate those, but remember that it is only the monetary costs we are considering.

If there are disabling wounds, they will need to be treated. But here we run into the same “change of clothing” phenomenon we saw before. Some of these wounds aren’t like a scraped knee that is “all healed” when the bandage comes off. Some require artificial limbs; some wheel chairs; some dialysis; some tracheotomies. What might it cost to “restore” soldiers on whom we dropped Agent Orange?

When I say “restore,” it is really a rhetorical question, but if we back the question away as far as “compensate for” or “provide a generous safety net for,” the questions get non-rhetorical quickly and the costs are mind-boggling even if we consider only physical damages.

But not all the damages are physical. There are the psychological costs. Everyone has read about PTSD, but you can’t see PTSD. PTSD is an explanation for a lot of asocial and anti-social behaviors that everyone can see. It is an explanation for some criminal behaviors that would ordinarily be handled by civilian courts. If they are PTSD-related, should they be handled by military courts? Should the military provide legal counsel for whatever civil court has to handle the case? Does “military service” become a “get out of jail free” card for all veterans? For some veterans? Which ones?

If a veteran comes back to a civilian life unable to cope with its complexity, should the military—just a shorthand expression for “taxpayers”—help them cope and, if “coping” is beyond their capacity, should the military provide some safe place for them to live. And by “safe,” I think we should mean that they are safe from us and we are safe from them.

vets 1I began to think of the costs of military service when I noticed the proliferation of charitable projects to support “homeless vets.” And I began to wonder how it is that soldiers can be put against their will into situations that will damage them for life and then, when they come home, be treated as the objects of charity drives? I had a brief and angry vision of myself wheeling a friend, now a vet in a wheelchair, up to an army recruiting office and saying, “Here. You broke him. Now fix him.”

It’s a really bad vision in a lot of ways. I admit that. But the alternative, if I really want to find a place to use that line, would be to take him to a Veterans Administration (V.A.) hospital and they are desperately underfunded. We have not given them the money even to do the things we require them to do, much less the money to cover the expanded notion of services I am considering here. Besides, they are not the ones who broke him.

It seems so “private sector.” The recruiting office is the marketing department. No underfunding there. But the company doesn’t maintain a department to fix the customers that their product damages They have a legal office to manage their legal liability for damaged customers, but no Rehabilitation Division. That’s the V.A. hospital. The armed forces do have a “rehabilitation division” but we fund it as if it were a government charity and then we call on private citizens to supplement that budget with private charities.

Domestic violence

How would we calculate “the costs of military action” if we said that every soldier we send into combat (not the other 90%) is guaranteed compensatory services for the rest of his life. Those have to do with education, employment, financial support, medical services, including psychological and legal services—for the rest of his life. And if any of these 10% suffer a loss of family support for whatever reason (that includes “reasons” which cannot be traced directly to the term of military service) the family receives the needed support as well.

I started off with an intentionally provocative question. I asked about the cost of “using” a citizen. “Using” is not a word we normally allow, but for some servicemen, the difference between being “used” and being “abused” [5] is really too thin for everyday conversations.

Not abusing these men would be everyone’s first choice, I am sure, but the business of killing people in a setting where the enemies and the civilians look just alike is daunting. So some of our soldiers are going to be ab-used. The next best choice is for the costs of rehabilitation—physical, psychological, social, vocational—be borne by the authority that sent them into battle. [6]

vets 3It is not right, according to this argument, to recruit men to serve a public purpose and then dump the responsibility for them onto society as if they were to be a subject of private charity. I am not opposed to private charities, but they should not be run for the purpose of compensating for the deliberate underfunding of public programs. Let us take care, as citizens and taxpayers, of the men we have sent into combat. Let us take care, as private persons whose compassion reaches out to others, of anyone whose need reaches us.

Someone will surely say that defining “public purpose” as broadly as I have will substantially increase the cost of waging war—or, as we say these days, “defending the national interest”—and that is true in a sense. It might be that no more dollars would be spent, but it is very likely that the proportion of those dollars provided by the public through their taxes would increase. What might feel to many taxpayers like an increase would only, in that case, be an honest accounting for what it actually costs.

Someone else will say, I am sure, that the picture I am painting is not patriotic. I believe in being patriotic [7] but all the banner waving seems to be a part of the recruitment phase at the front end and of the public announcements of gratitude at the back end of the process. I would like it to be seriously considered as part of the funding decisions by which these men are cared for.

It is a well-known Marine maxim that you don’t leave a Marine behind on the field of battle. What I am proposing here extends the “field of battle” to the long post-service civilian life.  These are our warriors and they may not be left behind.

[1] According to the latest figures I saw, 85% of the armed forces were men, so I will use the generic “he” in good conscience. I will imagine that the costs would not differ for women.
[2] I know that is clunky, but I am trying simultaneously to recognize what the serviceman’s family does to sustain a soldier but still to exclude them from the financial calculations.
[3] Even I know that “soldier” is not an acceptable substitute for all the services. Marines like to be called “Marines,” although they are a corps of the Navy. You can call members of the Navy “sailors,” and members of the Air Force, “airmen.” There is apparently no agreement on what to call a member of the U. S. Coast Guard.
[4] I don’t know if that calculation holds in a time when anywhere you walk or drive might bring you into contact with an IED. I would call that vulnerability “combat” myself, because I am considering the cost to the serviceman.
[5] We don’t often notice it, but the prefix ab-, as in, say, ab-normal, means “in the wrong way.” So there is, in the infrastructure of this word, a “proper use” and an improper (or ab-) use. This does not quite ease our discomfort at the notion of “using people,” but it might be the best we can do.
[6] We ordinarily say “into harm’s way,” as if our soldiers could be harmed by what happens to them rather than also by what they are forced to do.
[7] I don’t always define the love of my “father-land” (the patris in patriot comes from the Greek word meaning father) the way everyone else does, but I would be happy to justify that love to anyone who asks.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Memorial Day Reflections

  1. hesskw says:


    This is a superb piece.

    Thank you,

    Karl >

    • hessd says:

      I’m so glad you liked it, Karl. I had the feeling of skating on very thin ice even to raise the question the way I did and I have been very much encouraged by the response.

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