war on the rocks

For America, Welfare is Essential for Warfare

In 2015 I published a book called The Rise of the Military Welfare State that chronicled the history of military benefits and social services in the all-volunteer force. For many in the military, the title constituted fighting words. I didn’t anticipate this when I chose it. Some commenters asked if I thought soldiers were “welfare queens.” Others assumed I was out to cut their benefits. More than a few were angry enough to wish violence on me. If I had a quarter for every incensed email and suspicious question I’ve received, I’d have pocketed far more money than book sales have generated.

The title aroused hostility in part due to the widely held belief that the military is separate from civilian life and especially the civilian welfare state. While military personnel partake of subsidized housing, health care, child care, and many more systems of valuable support, most Americans – and military personnel – consider those programs “not social welfare,” but a taken-for-granted entitlement in return for the perceived sacrifices of military life.

The differentiation between military benefits and welfare goes even further than drawing bright lines between similar programs in different settings. The distinction shapes fundamental choices of where the nation invests in national power. The military and welfare are depicted as opposite poles in a Manichean battle of the budget. Too many political leaders and policy makers set up a zero-sum game scenario in which they pit “military spending” against “welfare spending”, claiming the former is more important than the latter. Others assume that social welfare for civilians creates a weak, dependent society that diminishes national power. The nation must therefore provide funds for worthy “troops” and take them from unworthy “welfare recipients.” For some elected officials, every breath supporting men and women in uniform is matched by a blast to social welfare spending.

These views reflect distorted understandings of social welfare and defense, and, as I’ve learned in spending the past year at the U.S. Army War College, they’re harmful to American national and military power. My conversations with senior leaders have made plain the central role of social welfare in creating the conditions for both military power and national power. The military and welfare are not opposites, they’re intertwined.

Welfare is short-hand for “social welfare,” which itself derives from “the general welfare” of the populace enshrined alongside “the common defense” in the United States Constitution. While Americans in recent decades have used the word “welfare” pejoratively to signify means-tested programs for the poor, historically welfare had a positive connotation and broader definition. The majority of Americans of the 1950s, including the war hero and Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, approved overwhelmingly of “welfare” and “the welfare state.” Health, education, old age pensions, disability protections, workplace safety, minimum wages and maximum hours – all these were properly considered “welfare.” Even the tax system and subsidized home loans constitute social welfare in the US. Some Americans receive social welfare through the government, some through private charities. Most partake of both even when they don’t know it; since the 1930s the government has subsidized the supposedly “private” employer benefits through tax breaks to large companies, all in an effort to deliver as many social and economic supports to as many Americans as possible.

These many types of social welfare have built and continue to sustain military power.

Take the military’s most basic requirement – fielding a force. The modern U.S. military has never been able to mobilize for war without adequate welfare for its populace. It was precisely the poor health, nutrition and education of many potential draftees during both World War I and World War II that helped make the case for expanding national social welfare programs. Military and Selective Service officials as well as veterans organizations made the case for social welfare programs for military preparedness. During the Cold War decades, the United States filled out its welfare state, improving public education, creating food and nutrition programs, and fostering physical fitness programs to build “readiness” among youth eligible for the draft. And since the era of the all-volunteer force began in 1973, social welfare has become even more essential. Healthy, able, educated and sound recruits are the sine qua non of the all-volunteer force, and declines in public health and welfare harm the force. Today, standards for military service preclude nearly 70 percent of the youth population who cannot qualify for service – they are too sick, too physically unfit, or too undereducated. It has not been possible – and it will not be possible – to fill the ranks to acceptable standards without basic investments in social welfare.

If the military needs strong social welfare programs to fill the force, it also needs them to utilize the force. Military benefits and social services – what I call the military welfare state – have grown hand-in-hand with the volunteer force in order to support readiness in garrison and deployment. Since the 1970s, the military has expanded social and economic benefits and services to all ranks and created vast new programs such as child care and family support services. Dozens of social welfare programs allow military personnel to do the jobs they joined to do, and to do them well. Even with the wrap-around services the military provides, military personnel also continue to rely on the civilian welfare state to fill gaps. Military personnel and their families utilize public schools, child welfare services, and food stamps, to name but a few civilian social welfare programs. The military has not been able to fulfill its missions – and will not in the future – without military and civilian investments in social welfare.

Social welfare also contributes to the national power of the United States. Regardless of what one thinks about role of America in the world today, there is no doubt that one of the main sources of its influence has been a healthy, educated, and productive populace. Critics of welfare argue that the populace would be better off with a much-diminished welfare state replaced by private charities, de-regulation, and self-reliance. Indeed, they believe government welfare programs diminish the economic productivity and personal initiative of Americans. Such a view does not correspond with the historical data on the rise of the United States to the status of a global power and later a superpower, however. As historians have documented, the increasing economic and military might of the United States – and thus its global influence – resulted not from a wildly unregulated free market, but from the better-regulated, well-distributed capitalism of the Progressive and New Deal state, which, along with the World War II regulation and postwar expansions of social welfare like the GI Bill, helped produce the healthiest, best-educated generation in U.S. (and world) history. Indeed, one way the United States exerted its global power was through exporting its New Deal capitalism abroad.

For their part, my students at the U.S. Army War College seemed intuitively aware of positive relationships between social welfare and national power. In my “Theory of War and Strategy” course, officers adhered to a broad definition of national power. Among other attributes, they cited key outcomes of social welfare – a productive economy, civic vitality, and social equality and opportunity. Students expressed modesty about the ability to achieve goals through military force alone and insisted on the inter-connected importance of political, economic, and social institutions to address matters of international concern. When we studied the history of the Peloponnesian War, my students expressed doubts about the long-term viability of the highly unequal Spartan society that directed all its national resources to war. And they identified tragedy in the imperial over-reach of Athens, a city-state whose relative equality and social and cultural investments ought to have sustained its flourishing role in the larger Greek world. Similarly, during an exercise ranking the power of the world’s states, military power never functioned as their sole criterion. Education, human development, and resultant economic power topped their lists. It’s no coincidence that eight of the ten most powerful nations they listed feature significant social safety nets, as defined by the World Bank. In large, complex 21st century societies, organized social welfare programs contribute to national power.

Maligning welfare and genuflecting to the military are staples of today’s partisan politics, where politicians stoke the worst fears and deepest passions of their electoral bases. But for those who claim to support U.S. national power and military readiness there is little excuse for reductionist thinking about social welfare programs. Yes, meaningful discussion must take place about how to make sure investments in both social welfare and military spending are ethical and sustainable. But no serious reckoning of national security can falsely decouple the two. Pitting military spending against social welfare might be popular for some versions of politics in the United States today, but it’s also dangerously wrong.


Jennifer Mittelstadt is Professor of History at Rutgers University and the current Harold K. Johnson Chair in Military History at the US Army War College, where she serves on the editorial board of Parameters. She has written numerous opinion pieces, scholarly articles and three books, including her latest, The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Image: marines.mil/Lance Cpl. Manuel F. Guerrero