Andrea Mazzarino Military

A Military Rich in Dollars, Poor in People

In the twenty-first century, for most troops sent to fight in pointless, losing wars abroad and possibly struggling afterwards with PTSD at home, the military hasn’t exactly been a winner.
The United States Pentagon building. [gregwest98 / CC BY 2.0 ]

By Andrea Mazzarino | TomDispatch

The American military is now having trouble recruiting enough soldiers. According to the New York Times, its ranks are short thousands of entry-level troops and it’s on track to face the worst recruitment crisis since the Vietnam War ended, not long after the draft was eliminated.

Mind you, it’s not that the military doesn’t have the resources for recruitment drives. Nearly every political figure in Washington, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, invariably agrees on endlessly adding to the Pentagon’s already staggering budget. In fact, it’s nearly the only thing they seem capable of agreeing on. After all, Congress has already taken nearly a year to pass a social-spending package roughly half the size of this year’s defense budget, even though that bill would mitigate the costs of health care for so many Americans and invest in clean energy for years to come. (Forget about more money for early childhood education.)

Nor is the Pentagon shy about spending from its bloated wallet to woo new recruits. It’s even cold-calling possible candidates and offering enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000.

As it happens, though, its recruiters keep running into some common problems that either prevent young people from enlisting or from even wanting to do so, including the poor physical or mental health of all too many of them, their mistrust of the government (and its wars), and the recent pandemic-related school closures that made it so much harder for recruiters to build relationships with high-school kids. Many of these recruitment issues are also all-American ones, related to the deteriorating quality of life in this country. From a basic standard of living to shared values or even places where we might spend much time together, we seem to have ever less connecting us to each other. In a nation where friendships across socioeconomic classes are vital to young peoples’ access to new opportunities, this ought to trouble us.

Playing Alone

When I arrived to pick my kids up from camp recently, an elementary school classmate playing basketball with them was yelling “This is for Ukraine!” as he hurled the ball towards the hoop. It promptly bounced off the backboard, landing on a child’s head just as he was distracted by a passing bird. Another mother and I exchanged playful winces. Then we waited a few more minutes while our kids loped back and forth between the hoops, not really communicating, before taking our charges home.

By the time I had gotten my young kids signed up for a camp so that my spouse, an active-duty military officer, and I could continue our work lives this summer, basketball was all that was left. The sun often baked the courts so that less time was spent outside playing and more time talking, while trying to recover from the heat. Though our children were new to group activities, having largely engaged in distance learning during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, they did find a couple of things to talk about with the other kids that reflected our difficult world. “Mommy,” said my seven year old when we got home one day, “a kid said Russia could nuclear bomb us. Could they?” On another occasion, he asked, “Is Ukraine losing?”

They know about such subjects because they sometimes listen in on nighttime discussions my spouse and I have. We might typically consider Russian President Vladimir Putin’s elusive nuclear redline and how close the U.S. will dare creep to it in arming Ukrainian forces. As a therapist who works with active-duty military families, I’m all too aware that kids like ours often worry about violence. Similarly, it’s my experience that military kids tend to wonder whether some kind of repeat of the January 6th attack on our Capitol by Trump’s armed mob could, in the future, involve our military in conflicts at home in which our troops might either kill or be killed by their fellow citizens.  

Such violence at home and abroad has become routine for daily life in this country and been absorbed by troubled young minds in a way that left them attracted to video games involving violence. Those can, under the circumstances, seem like a strangely familiar comfort. It’s a way for them to turn the tables and put themselves in control. I recently had a perceptive neighbor’s kid tell me that playing the military game Call of Duty was a way of making war fun instead of worrying about when World War III might break out.

My family is fortunate because we can afford to be home in our spacious yard long enough to let our kids play outside with one another, delighting in nature. I also watch them play “war” with sticks that they reimagine as guns, but that’s about where their militarism ends.

I know that military spouses are expected to encourage their children to join the armed forces. In fact — don’t be shocked — some 30%  of young adults who do join these days have a parent in one of the services. But I guess I’m a bit of an odd duck. Yes, I married into the military out of love for the man, but I’ve led a career distinct from his. I even co-founded the Costs of War Project at Brown University, which played a vital role in critiquing this country’s wars in this century. I also became a therapist with a professional, as well as personal, view of the healthcare deficits, internal violence, and exposure to tough work conditions that military life often brings with it.

To take one example, my spouse and I have been waiting for months to get care for a life-threatening condition that those with comparable insurance coverage in the civilian population would often have access to in weeks or less. A host of related health conditions are no less poorly treated in our all-too-well-funded military these days.

As we plan to wind down our family’s stint in the military, it’s hard to ignore how little of our fat military budget with its ever fancier weaponry goes to help Americans in those very services. A line from the new film Top Gun: Maverick comes to mind, as title character’s commanding officer warns him: “The future is coming. And you’re not in it.”

Capitalism’s Military Marriage

Thanks in part to growing wealth inequalities in this country and what often seems to be a perpetual stalemate in Congress regarding social spending, the next generation of would-be fighters turn out to be in surprisingly rough shape. It’s no secret that the U.S. military targets low-income communities in its recruitment drives. It has a long record, for instance, of focusing on high schools that have higher proportions of poor students. Recruiters are also reportedly showing up at strip malls, fast-food joints, and even big box stores — the places, that is, where many poor and working-class Americans labor, eat, or shop.

So, too, has the military and the rest of the national security state piggybacked on an American love of screens. The alliance between Hollywood and military recruiters goes all the way back to World War I. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, the government stepped up its efforts to sell this country’s latest wars to the public, presenting them as a ticket to greater opportunities for those who enlisted and, of course, a patriotic fight against terrorism. The smoke had barely cleared from the site of the Twin Towers when Pentagon officials began meeting with Hollywood directors to imagine future war scenarios in which the U.S. might be involved. Present at those meetings were the directors of movies like Delta Force One, Missing in Action, and Fight Club.

It appears that those efforts had an effect. A 2014 social-science study found, for instance, that when it came not to the military directly but to the U.S. intelligence community, 25% of the viewers of either the combat film Argo or Zero Dark Thirty changed their opinions about its actions in the war on terror. Who knew that, with the help of stars like Jessica Chastain, waterboarding and sleep deprivation could be made to look so sexy?

Some kids were more likely than others to pick up such messages. On average, low-income children have more screen time daily than higher income ones do. And many teens increased their screen time by hours during the pandemic, particularly in poor families, which grew only poorer compared with wealthy ones in those years. As a result, in a country where basic services like school and healthcare have been harder to access due to Covid-19, the few spaces for social interaction available to many vulnerable Americans have remained saturated with violence.

A Frayed Social Safety Net and the Military

In such communities, it turns out that the military might no longer be able to promise opportunity to that many young people anymore. After all, our government has done an increasingly poor job of providing a basic safety net of food security, a decent education, and reasonable healthcare to our poorest citizens and so seems to have delivered many of them to adulthood profoundly unwell and in no condition to join the military.

Annually, the proportion of young people who are mentally and physically healthy has been shrinking. As a result, roughly three quarters of those between the ages of 17 and 24 are automatically disqualified from serving in the military for obesity, having a criminal record, drug use, or other similar reasons.

To take one example, obesity among kids has skyrocketed in recent years. During the pandemic, in fact, it began rising a stunning five times faster than in previous years. While obesity may not always disqualify young people from serving in the military, it usually does, as do obesity-related diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. While its underlying causes are complicated, two things are clear: it’s far more prevalent among the lower- and middle-income segments of the population and per capita it’s strongly linked to wealth inequality.

Legislation like the Healthy Food Access for All Americans bill, which has the potential to expand access to less fattening foods through tax credits and grants for grocers and food banks, was introduced in the Senate more than a year ago. You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that it has yet to pass.

The casualties of not caring for our own in this way are high. According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 300,000 deaths each year are due to this country’s obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, deadly as such a phenomenon might prove to be, it doesn’t make for the sort of gripping plots that popular movies need.

Similarly, the military’s recruitment efforts suffer because of poor mental-health levels among young people. One in five young women and one in 10 young men experience an episode of major depression before turning 25. Meanwhile, the suicide rate in this country is the highest among wealthy nations and now — thanks, in part, to all the weapons flooding this society — it’s also the second-leading cause of death among 10-to-24-year-olds. Worse yet, poor kids are significantly more likely to die by suicide. Globally, wealth- and race-based inequalities are key determinants of mental health, in part because people who sense that the world they live in is deeply unfair are more likely to develop clinical mental-health disorders.

A 2019 United Nations report suggested that, in order to improve mental health, governments ought to focus on investing in social programs to support people who have experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect at home or in their neighborhoods. It seems unlikely, though, that our elected representatives are ready for such things.

This Is for Democracy

The human frailties that hinder enlistment are symptoms of something more sinister than a military lacking bodies. The threat that is guaranteed to further undermine any American readiness to face life as it should be faced in this discordant twenty-first century with its ever more feverish summers is the dismantling of our democratic system.

A recent survey ranked the U.S. only 26th globally when it comes to the quality of its democracy. And that’s sad because functional democratic systems are better at creating the conditions in which people can help each other and be involved in public service of all sorts, yes, including in the military.

Democracies are also better at educating people and generally have more efficient health-care systems in part due to the lesser likelihood of corruption. Ask anyone who has sought care in an autocracy like Russia and they’ll tell you that even being rich doesn’t guarantee you quality care when bribery and political retaliation infuse social life.

Democracies have less criminal violence and less likelihood of civil war. In a true democracy where the peaceful transition of power is a given, the kinds of emergencies that necessitate a strong military and law enforcement response are much less likely, which is why the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol was so ominous. Worse yet, investing in weapons rather than human livelihood is guaranteed to have costs that are not only far reaching, but hard to predict. One thing is certain, though: war and ever greater preparations for more of it do not lay the groundwork for a good democracy.

All this is to say that our government ought to stop using movie screens and strip malls to sell its bloody practices overseas. It ought to stop investing in the national (in)security state and the corporations that support it in a way that has become unimaginable for the rest of society. It ought to develop a truly functional social-support system at home that would include the Americans now not quite filling the Pentagon’s tired ranks.

Copyright 2022 Andrea Mazzarino

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

26 comments

  1. There are necessary evils in God’s plan that includes USD hegemony.
    They have vital roles.

    1. Hahahaha! That’s hilarious. Do tell us more! Be sure to include phrases from scripture like “A man cannot serve two masters…” and “It’s easier for a rich man to get into heaven…”

      1. I see then in there when I read it. Did you think it was all made up of good guys? Did you ever actually read it ?

    2. So much delusional thinking (or just plain propagandist baloney) in two short sentences. I wonder what are you more concerned about, your god’s desires or your portfolio balance?

  2. Good lord, who wants to be cannon fodder for a corrupt empire. Besides desperate 3rd worlders who fall for the gig that is.

  3. C Wright Mills more than 60 years ago perceived US is a military dictatorship. the fascist sheepdog Bernardo sanders votes all military appropriation votes yes for all regime change efforts—this explains why immoral libs like him. US spends more than 12 next largest military nations combined and is humiliated in all wars—-Machiavelli long ago found that “gold never wins a war”; this cannot be comprehended in USA…the peasants are happy to pay double for gas wait in food lines, die from fentanyl and recruit Hondurans to join US military

  4. AGREED !!! But all world governments , corporations, and medical systems are committing genocide to kill us all off which is the priority

    1. They’re whacking us with the stick because only the free market can safely and legally monetize precious metals by the hand of the consumer. The process has to be market driven. USD hegemony can then come to an end along with the petrodollar .

      Consumers have a nasty dirty habit of circulating IOU’s. That has to shift

      1. is your prophet bill gates or Frederick Hayek—-you have a primitive religious belief that is discredited by analysis and history

      2. It’s empowered by history. Never in history have debt-free real-time transactions come to fruition in support of real economic growth. You stand corrected

    2. fallacious—a false equivalence…wrong as to values, institutions, corporations, policies, medical …USA one of only a few nations that does not provide universal health care

  5. “The human frailties that hinder enlistment are symptoms of something more sinister than a military lacking bodies. The threat that is guaranteed to further undermine any American readiness to face life as it should be faced in this discordant twenty-first century with its ever more feverish summers is the dismantling of our democratic system.”

    This has been irking the hell out of me for years. They’ve dumbed us down and turned the greater majority into “homo economicus,” craven sell-outs thoroughly divorced from cognizance of what’s going on around them (and even what they themselves are doing) and anything beyond getting (whatever they may be moved to pursue). As in the quote, we have no idea what life is… we are in denial of the very facts of life.
    “Man does not live by bread alone.”
    Seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary.
    The neoliberal free-for-all, dog-eat-dog Rat Race has won all them little hearts and minds, it has bloomed and borne a vile fruit: a people incapable of clear, clean thought, a people unfit even to play the part of cogs.

    I would only addend that our (sick) democratic system has dismantled itself.

    1. Europeans/Latin Americans have always considered Americans to be extraordinarily shallow—as did Tocqueville. Marx believed that certain aspects of capitalism transformed men into “stomachs”. But this can happen in any economic approach if education is merely utilitarian, where jobs deskilled where civilization is despised. this is not a ruling class consequence but the desire of ordinary Americans….the ruling class spends hundreds of millions to give the peasants what they want—antifa, black lives matter, lgbt rights, Starbucks, pizza, an ugly consciousness industry, cocktail party climate change hand wringing, etc

    2. More, cognitive dissonance is essentially non extant. Cognition is, at best, a cripple. There is no dissonance because our irrationality and mal-logic, irresponsibility, deceit and delusion are as comfortable under one roof as an Amish family.

  6. Mazzarino is at best racist and ignorant—universal health care in Russia far superior to US assembly line non-care…Russian life expectancy rapidly increasing, US rapidly declining…obviously Mazzarino knows nothing about freedom democracy or quality—war has zero to do with civil strife violence or war. USA #1 violent crime, non violent crime, rape per capita all nations despite that rape experts claim fewer 25% reported, crime experts less than 50% reported….this intellectual irresponsibility —most despised by Gramsci demonstrates why the fake liberal left is actually fascist..for Mazzarino free university education, the longest state paid maternity benefits on earth and 89% home ownership –few mortgages, 13% income tax except for rich—nearly no property tax except for rental income is autocracy–in amerikan police state fee dumb coke vs Pepsi

    1. Yeah, I saw that cheap shot on the Russian health care system. At least the Russians are trying. The utter lack of universal free care here is a moral catastrophe–a known and preventable crime perpetrated against the US citizenry. But, like all other bad things in this country, the response is, yeah but Russia! Russia bad!

  7. And once they have soldiers, they fuck with them about their weight, even if they’re not overweight, they don’t pay them enough so that they can’t support their families, they do everything possible to make them totally miserable so that they don’t reenlist when their contract is up. Our Army is totally stupid. My son would love to remain a soldier but at this moment, he just wants to get the F out.

  8. please remove mazzarinos lies—inequalities–race/wealth irrelevant mental illness, suicide—explain the disparities latinos vs whites/blacks/impoverished asians/jews in USA—she cannot—xenophobic and racist she believes non-amerikans share her values…globally race/wealth inequality have no relationship to mental illness…democracy—which Mazzarino cannot understand has zero to do with violence, crime or anything else she asserts….monarchies like Oman far less violence no civil war—something US is already experiencing…using mini-coeffecient nations w similar inequalities to USA are 5 times less plagued by mental illness than USA….this pure intellectual irresponsibility should not be tolerated

  9. With the largest military in the world the US is strong on the outside but on the inside it is feeding on itself and is becoming a hollow shell.

    1. Ya, it kind of reminds me of the Roman Empire’s latter years when they exhausted their valuable engineers. The Roman army were industrial strength that defeated their opponents thru superior engineering technology and not by individual fighters.
      A lot of our engineers, researchers, and scientists are now non white Americans, proof of our Capitalism
      success.
      Then, Roman soldiers at the end of Empire were not Romans but mercenaries from afar.

      Also our army is now a mercenary army, not from a draft. If Trump is indicted, will our military stay united?? Or some friction and rebellions?

      But, it sure seem that mega droughts and rising sea levels are the greatest foes; not unlike the mega volcanic actions that wrecked agriculture and was the major reason for the Roman Empire down fall.

      Have we won any wars since WW2? and even then, Central Asians humbled the Nazi’s best troops on the Eastern front making it easy for the weak western front. We won the cold war over USSR, or was it Gorbachev’s perestroika??
      Hollywood and MSM convinces us that we always win and are right.

      1. Huh? Aside from not knowing Roman history and a tiring, unnecessary and cliche’ invocation of Trump, do you really think volcanoes had any impact on Rome? Just bizarre stuff, pointing out this site really needs a moderator.

  10. The recruitment strain highlights something missing from the recently-publicized “war games” that the US would suffer horrible casualties in a successful attempt to keep the PRC from forcibly taking its Taiwan province — what would the effect of these large casualties have on the US and even the ultimate outcome of the Tawan war?

    As we saw with Vietnam, an army composed of regular Americans, not volunteers — created a large domestic political problem. if the US suffers tens of thousands of casualties, especially considering extensively and expensively trained specialists like pilots — what could it do to stop a Chinese “second wave” attack?

    Restore the draft?

    Plus: since the armed forces are riddled with white nationalists, having them die “over there” might be beneficial to the country by removing potential fascist troopers here.

    1. A bit ham fisted there; China doesn’t need to “forcibly take” Taiwan. China would not bother. It just needs to take the sea around Taiwan while maintaining the status quo and this is what the litany of agreements between the US & China were designed to eventuate in. In Chinese tradition you don’t even “take the sea” you simply build a navy so big it becomes apparent it could, then the US changes it’s tune and plays nice. That’s war as art.

      That is the process we see, which is why there is so much US propaganda out of the blue, it’s not about some real threat, it’s consent manufacturing for future levels of military spending we have never seen before.

      I recently watched the rather silly character Ron Paul on his embarrassingly named Liberty Report, there he was piping off against Neocons and constant US war. This was heartening, there is a solid cadre of GOP types taking cover behind a tough Libertarian dislike of war not because of ethics (cowardly!), but because of their wallets (smart with $!).

      ~~

      For the record most US Vietnam troops were volunteers:
      9m were in the US military 1964-73. 2.7m served in Vietnam, 1.5m saw some combat. 25% (648,500) of total forces in country were draftees vs 66% of for WWII.

      Total draftees (1965-73) were 1,728,344, thus 2/3rds of draftees never saw Vietnam. Thus the civilian uprising against the war was against the war itself as shown on US TV (lesson: don’t do that today!) not specifically against the draft. Certainly the draft was huge and I just missed it, but it was the criminal nature of the richest nation on Earth murdering peasants with napalm that made Americans sick.

      I like your acerbic end point. Yes bring back the draft, but rather than the cringy “have them die over there” just lower the benefits system of honors and freebies that recruiters use to lure star struck young men to go become murderers or worst support staff for murderers.

  11. Such a disturbing essay – both delusional and all too real, thus it’s both very easy & hard to start a critique. I’ll try the “some observations” list method, as a properly composed crit of this psychopathic piece could take me an hour:

    1. Soldiers are the worst people in human history. This is the one fact that must be repeated like a mantra. It’s on official record, from Roman mobs of rock throwing rapists to the constructors of Tamerlane’s skull-pyramids, to Azov Battalion’s white supremacist ethnic cleansers, soldiers are the mainspring that kept evil ticking across world history. Don’t take my word, it’s in the books, read them.

    2. The military is a necessary evil, this is the rub. Herein lies the problem; humans are a species of animal and all animals fight. That chirping you hear from the birds at 5am is bird war warming up for the day. Society happens when certain of the animals concocts a power structure to organize their hates, these two factors eventuate in armies.

    3. Honoring the military is a direct product of manufactured consent. There is no natural reason that ordinary people will tolerate unwise men waltzing about in organized groups with uniforms & weapons. Yet we trumpet them when they do it at our great expense in places most neither understand nor give a hoot about. The level of consent manufacturing it takes to hold these contradictory notions in the mind and still pay taxes is monumental. Luckily for the war machine and it’s dependents, we live in The Age of Opinion Control, with the bleeding edge of that mechanism working in the so called “Intelligence Agencies.” The intelligence part refers to them getting over on the mass of the country it takes to mold the culture. Hollywood helps, but it’s mostly what you do not get to hear that has Americans so unnaturally honoring the troops.

    4. The ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, and works as symbol for any society that loads so much esteem onto the military that it’s no longer understood to be a necessary evil. When the US Defense Dept. is no longer understood by average people to be what it is in fact; a money pit and creator of world wide mayhem & thus hate for the US, it’s caught the national tail in it’s barbed teeth and begun to consume the nation materially and spiritually. The best thing for the nation may be the worst thing for the author of this awful article and more than any of us can accomplish; that kids realize that their military parents are bullshitting grifters permanently & delusionally stuck on the Pentagon teat, who are lying to themselves and the nation.

  12. Elon’s Optimus will be here soon. Hopefully it will end wars and not fight in them

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