The current narrative of the government shutdown is that the bi-partisan decision to shield active duty service members was a success. The logic seems sound on its surface, how could we cease paying the people responsible for defending our nation? The problem with the decision is that singling out service members for an exemption is destructive to the state of civil-military relations and simply another example of politicians using the military for their own agendas.
The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who serve our country all deserve to be paid for their noble service, but so do the healthcare professionals, public administrators, and economic regulators who are currently furloughed. By allowing active duty military members to avoid the pain of the government shut down, politicians are promulgating the idea that the military is a “protected class,” somehow above regular citizens and even other public servants. This separation is toxic for the men and women in uniform and the body politic.
Our nation’s leaders should recognize the military as a critical facet of the executive branch but not treat it as a show-pony organization that must be sheltered from budget vicissitudes to prevent bad press. Like in other national security agencies, only the most critical of our uniformed service members should have been excluded from the shutdown. Our Army and Marine Corps forces in Afghanistan, Naval forces deployed to sea, and Air Force units operating across the globe should remain supported by Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. However, the thousands of soldiers in the United States currently in training and at their units should be sitting at home watching the news, and calling their Representatives—just like the thousands of other affected Americans.
The discussion about the civil-military divide often focuses on the fact that a historically small percentage of our population has actually participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea being that so much is owed to so few. While the numbers are true and the sacrifices real, this does not account for the untouchable status that service members and veterans are often given by our politicians. Nor do those who chose to serve ask for this status.
In fact, all of my friends still in uniform, and fellow recent veterans absolutely shun what can be described as the “hero worship,” which serves to venerate the idea of military service while holding actual service members at an ever greater distance. Congress’ passing of the Pay Our Military Act seems like it’s not a genuine acknowledgment of the necessity of the work done by the military but a political maneuver to avoid negative press. It was not passed and signed out of a sincere care for members of the military and their families, it was passed to act as hush money. If our leaders wanted to do what was best for the armed forces and their families writ large, they would find a way to compromise and to fund our government in its entirety.
While these leaders aren’t willing to find a solution to the actual problem, they are willing to use veterans to score political points. When I saw TV coverage on the much-reported story of a group of WWII veterans overrunning a memorial, I was ecstatic. However, the story quickly moved away from the veterans themselves and towards Representatives Bachman and Steve King. Flanked by some of our nation’s bravest men, these representatives couldn’t miss an opportunity to get in front of the cameras and blame everyone but themselves for the current crisis. I doubt the surrounding veterans could have gotten away with so blatantly failing to do their jobs in the manner of these elected officials.
If the basis for good civil-military relations is to minimize frictions between the military and its civilian overseers and encourage a sense of common cause, then the best thing Congress can do is not to give the military special treatment, but to simply do a better job running the government. Passing a budget in a timely manner, which in turn would allow the Department of Defense to stop focusing on the budget crises, would do more to repair civil-military relations than a “Thank you for your service” or the Pay Our Military Act.
Instead our leaders have made their political boondoggle slightly more palatable, bought themselves more time to score political points and further widened the gap between uniformed service members and the rest of the country. It’s time for these leaders to take a page out of those WWII veterans’ playbook, refuse to listen to the prevailing rules in Washington and move forward—this time to a compromise.