F. Scott Fitzgerald, meticulous chronicler of American social class, famously confided to Ernest Hemingway that "the rich are different from the rest of us."
"Yes," was Hemingway's laconic reply. "They have more money."
These days, the same could be said of the American military. Is the military different from the rest of us? Yes -- it has more money.
This is true in a multitude of ways. Start with the obvious: if we view military spending as synonymous with defense spending (which it's not, really, but pretend it is for now), boy, does it have more money. In 2011, the United States spent an estimated $768 billion on defense. Defense spending has gone down a tad since then -- by the time I ended a two-year stint as counselor to the under secretary of defense for policy in summer 2011, we were beginning to speak glumly of the coming age of austerity. But the Pentagon budget still dwarfs pretty much everything else. The poor little State Department, for instance, shared a measly $55 billion with USAID and numerous other international programs.
This year, Congress and the White House are playing chicken over budget sequestration, which would force draconian cuts in military spending if Congress fails to avert it. But with politicians from both parties vying to demonstrate their love for all things Pentagon, it's safe to assume that an eleventh hour compromise will be reached. The overall budget pie may shrink in the coming decade, but I'd bet my government Thrift Savings Account that DoD's share of that pie will grow, while the State Department's slice will get slimmer still.
And it's not just from the perspective of national-level budgeting that the military has more money. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the average member of the military is paid better than 75 percent of civilian federal workers with comparable experience. Members of the military and their families can also lay claim to America's most generous (though arguably unsustainable) social programs.
As the spouse of a career Army officer, I'm stunned by the range of available benefits. Health care? Free! Groceries? Military commissaries save military families roughly 30 percent over shopping in civilian stores. Education benefits? Career personnel can expect the military to finance additional higher education, and the post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to 36 months of benefits to veterans, amounting, in effect, to full tuition and fees for four academic years. (The education benefit is also transferable to dependents.)
Housing? Free on base and subsidized off-base (the housing allowance goes up with family size: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need). Pensions? After 20 years of service, military personnel can retire and immediately begin to receive, at the ripe old age of 40 or so, an annual pension equal to half their salary -- for the rest of their lives. Anyone who thinks socialism failed in America has never spent time on a military base.
The generous benefits we give our military reflect the increasingly reflexive esteem in which we hold the armed forces. Despite (or because of) the dwindling number of Americans who serve or have a close relative who serves, support for the military has become America's civil religion.
In part, this is because we recognize that with our all-volunteer military, the few truly do make sacrifices for the many. The punishing deployment tempo of the last decade -- not to mention the thousands of military personnel killed and wounded -- has wreaked havoc on military families and communities, even as most Americans live lives wholly untouched by terrorism and war.
But this can't fully account for the disproportionate benefits we bestow on the military. Plenty of other Americans serve the nation in vital ways -- consider public school teachers and nurses -- and plenty of other Americans, from fishers to fire-fighters, have dangerous jobs. We don't seem inclined to fling free health care and housing in the direction of teachers or fire-fighters, though.