Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Volunteer Military is a Pro-Family Military

I have been reading Betty Alt's Following the Flag: Marriage and the Modern Military this week. She makes a point that I could have figured out, but never thought of: the volunteer military has to support families, or the soldiers and sailors and airmen will leave.

There have always been wives, even children, following soldiers from post to post. They were, at best, tolerated, but never welcomed, especially for enlisted men. What changed the military's attitude toward families was the advent of the All Volunteer Force in 1973. For most of the history of the American military, the force was very small. Only officers would marry, and then only with permission. There weren't that many families to accommodate, and, except for a few lifers, they needn't be accommodated for long. Even in major wars – the Civil War, WWI and WWII – many men were drafted, but whatever accommodations were made to families, and especially by families, were temporary. The massive build-up was followed by a massive demobilization.

When we ended the draft after the Vietnam War, though, we had a superpower's need for a large, permanent armed force all around the world. The military had to make a fundamental change in the way it viewed families. In order to recruit and keep good volunteers, their families needed to be more than tolerated. Permanent base housing was built, a school system was created, medical benefits for families were increased. In time, with more female soldiers (now about 13% of the armed services), these benefits were extended to that new species, the military husband. Childcare services were created for working moms who were married to soldiers, or were soldiers themselves.

The military has been clumsy in adapting to families. And it is in the nature of war that families are separated, and mothers and fathers get wounded or killed. I, for one, think that mothers of small children should not be soldiers, though I would stop just short of making this a law. Still, the armed services have done a remarkable job in only one generation in changing their long custom and adapting to military families. There is more that could be done, of course, but in this area, as in many others, the military actually leads the way in practically accommodating new social formations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had not heard of that book; thank you for the reference.

I suspect that the extended use of the National Guard will amplify this effect. Not expecting long-term military service, more of them seem to be married.

The combination of families and a volunteer force may also benefit returning soldiers. The reports of dire shortages of counseling services, inadequate health care payments, and low veterans budgets are not surprising. But the families of these vets are becoming more vocal, and may become excellent advocates.

My generation includes the Vietnam vets who did not get much help; it is my prayer that the Iraq vets receive better. With the military's ear turned towards their families, maybe it will happen.