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The Ruinously Expensive American Military

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Pay and benefits are out of control

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America's Republican politicians complain that "entitlements," by which they mean pensions and medical care, are leading the country to bankruptcy even as they fatten the spending on the Pentagon, which now takes 12 percent of the overall budget. And it should be noted that while workers contribute to the social programs during all their years of employment, the money that goes to the military comes straight out of the pockets of taxpayers before being wasted in ways that scarcely benefit the average citizen unless one seriously thinks that folks over in Syria, Iran and Afghanistan actually do threaten the survival of the United States of America.

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I was in a Virginia supermarket the other day checking out when the woman behind the cash register in a perky voice asked me "Will you give $5 to support our troops?" I responded "No. Our troops already get way too much of our money." She replied, "Hee, hee that's a funny joke" and I said "It's not a joke." Her face dropped and she signaled to her boss over in customer service and asked her to take over, saying that I had been rude.

If there is any group in the United States that exceeds the sheer greed of our politicians it is the military, which believes itself to be "entitled" as a consequence of its role in the global war on terror. I am a veteran who began service in a largely draftee army in which we were paid "twenty-one dollars a day once a month" as the old World War 2 song goes. When we got out, the GI Bill gave us $175 a month to go back to college, which did not cover much.

Today's United States has 2,083,000 soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen on active duty plus reserves. Now that the military is an all-volunteer rather than a conscript force, it is understandable that pay and benefits should be close to or equivalent to civilian pay scales. Currently, a sergeant first class with 10 years in service gets paid $3,968 a month. A captain with 10 years gets $6,271. That amounts to $47,616 and $75,252 a year respectively plus healthcare, food, housing, cost of living increases and bonuses to include combat pay.

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Though there are several options for retirement, generally speaking a soldier, sailor Marine or airman can retire after 20 years with half of his or her final "high three" pay as a pension, which means an 18-year-old who enlists right out of high school will be 38 and if he or she makes sergeant first class (E-7) he or she will be collecting $2,338 a month or more for a rest of his or her life adjusted for cost of living,

Many Americans would be astonished at the pensions that general officers and admirals receive, particularly since 80% of them also land in "retirement" generously remunerated positions with defense contractors either in active positions soliciting new contracts from their former peers or sitting on boards.

General David Petraeus, whom The Nation describes as the "general who lost two wars," pulls in a pension of $220,000 even though he was forced to resign as CIA Director due to passing classified information to his mistress. He is also chairman of a New York City based company KKR Global, which is part of a private equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts. He reportedly is paid in six figures plus bonuses for "oversee[ing] the institute's thought leadership platform focused on geopolitical and macro-economic trends, as well as environmental, social, and governance issues."

It apparently is difficult to take money away from general and flag officers. An Air Force four-star general named Arthur Lichte was reduced in rank to a two-star in 2017 after he was found guilty of having raped a lower ranking woman officer. His pension went down from $216,000 to $156,000 due to the reduction. Normally, however, America's 1,000 general and flag officers can look forward to comfortable retirements.

But on top of that rather generous bit of cash there are the considerable other benefits, as the old recruiting sergeants would put it, the "bennies." Military retirees can receive full tuition and expenses at a college or technical school if they choose to go back to school. This is why one sees so many ads for online universities on television -- they are trolling for soldier dollars knowing that it's free money. The retiree will also have access to heavily subsidized medical care for him or herself plus family. The medical care is a significant bonus under the Tricare system, which describes itself on its website as "the gold standard for medical coverage, [that] is government managed health insurance." A friend who is retired recently had a hip replacement operation that would have cost $39,000 for only a few hundred dollars through Tricare.

What is significant is that even enlisted military personnel can start a second career on top of their pension, given that many of them are still in their thirties. Some that have security clearances can jump into highly paid jobs with defense contractors immediately while others also find places in the bureaucracy with the Department of Homeland Security. Working for the government twice is called "double dipping."

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Some would argue that military personnel deserve what they get because the jobs are by their very nature dangerous, sometimes fatal. Indeed, the number of maimed and PTSD-afflicted soldiers returning from the endless wars is a national tragedy and caring for them should be a top priority. But the truth is that only a very small fraction, by some estimates far less than 20% of Army and Marine personnel in so-called "combat arms," ever are in danger. Air Force and Navy personnel rarely experience combat at all apart from bombing targets far below or launching cruise missiles against Syrians. It is true that given the volatile nature of war against insurgents in places like Afghanistan many soldiers in support roles can come under fire, but it is far from normal and most men and women in service never experience a gun fired in anger.

Some numbers-crunchers in the Pentagon have already raised the alarm that the current pay, benefits and retirement levels for military personnel is unsustainable if the United States continues its worldwide mission against terrorists and allegedly rogue regimes. And it is also unsustainable if the U.S. seeks to return to a constitutional arrangement whereby the nation is actually defended by its military, not subordinated to it and being bankrupted by its costs.

 

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Philip Giraldi is the executive director of the Council for the National Interest and a recognized authority on international security and counterterrorism issues. He is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who served eighteen years overseas in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Mr. Giraldi was awarded an MA and PhD from the University of London in European History and holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honors from the University of Chicago. He speaks Spanish, Italian, German, and Turkish. His columns on terrorism, intelligence, and security issues regularly appear in The American Conservative magazine, Huffington Post, and antiwar.com. He has written op-ed pieces for the Hearst Newspaper chain, has appeared on "Good Morning America," MSNBC, National Public Radio, and local affiliates of ABC television. He has been a keynote speaker at the Petroleum Industry Security Council annual meeting, has spoken twice at the American Conservative Union's annual CPAC convention in Washington, and has addressed several World Affairs Council affiliates. He has been interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Britain's Independent Television Network, FOX News, Polish National Television, Croatian National Television, al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, 60 Minutes, and other international and domestic broadcasters.


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16 people are discussing this page, with 24 comments  Post Comment


Josh Mitteldorf

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Three comments:


1) The official Pentagon budget is the tip of the iceberg. The black budget is much larger, documented recently by a UMichigan study.


2) The evil done by the US military is far larger than the money that is wasted. It would be far better if they actually wasted the money rather than use it to bomb wedding parties and prop up dictators.


3) Nevertheless the "troops" don't have it easy, and they are not sharing in the bounty. Our salaries for enlisted men can be low because for so many of America's young people there are no jobs.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 2:40:41 AM

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Paul Cohen

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I don't know this for a fact but I suspect that a random sample of the world population asking who people consider the major rogue nation in the world is would turn up embarrassing numbers for the U.S.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 2:24:48 PM

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Josh Mitteldorf

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...and they woudn't be wrong.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 3:32:17 PM

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Leslie Johnson

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Dang. I just read UMichigan study you linked. It is said that people put their money into what is important to them. I believe the same is true for government. Obviously the people here don't seem too important to them, leaving war and destruction as their priority. That being the case, they should quit with the BS of us being the greatest country in the world as well as being Christian.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 2:40:54 PM

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Lois Gagnon

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They should also quit the pretense that we go to war for our freedom and security or other people's human rights. It is mystifying that anyone at all believes this horse hockey anymore.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 12:00:42 AM

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Rick Kincade

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When the Berlin Wall came down and most Americans were celebrating the "winning" of the Cold War I was of the opinion that the USSR was the winner because now they didn't have to pour as much of their money into the military to keep up. It sounds like they put their money into more efficient defensive weapons instead of draining their country of "hard earned" money. In my lifetime I have watched the USA go from a good country (not that we haven't been doing bad things for a while) to an absolute disgusting fascist murdering group of thugs that nobody in the world respects or likes (except for the people that are getting some of the $ from this setup). Very sad! Thanks for the info on pay scales. Murder is Money.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 2:51:33 PM

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John Lawrence Ré

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Well said Rick, but as for the USA being "a good country" unless you are over two centuries old, I'm not sure when that was. But "murder is money" is certainly an elegant summation. We've been a pure military state since 1945 when the cabal of generals took the helm upon FDR passing and Henry Wallce being blocked from the VP nomination -- the virtual coup d'etat that placed peaceful human intercourse in check mate. Shoulda been Camelot, coulda been Rome, turned out to be Sparta.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 4:50:23 PM

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Kenneth Johnson

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I have often said out-loud, "We could have been a good country; at best I get a confused look thrown back at me for that comment.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 6:44:40 PM

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Rick Kincade

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I guess I was thinking in a relative way of the fabulous fifties compared to present day reality in our streets and in our armies. Our roots are in the rape and pillaging of the colonial times and has only gotten worse, and I understand that, but I think there have been some "better times than others" if not quite warranted being called good. :D First time I have used murder is money.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 6:39:20 AM

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John Lawrence Ré

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You're right in that one reasonably "better time" for the white majority was that euphoric window between the Korean Invasion and the Vietnam Invasion when La Dolce Vita was playing out in Europe and the foundation for Camelot was being laid in america, and you didn't need to be a billionaire to live like a jet setter. But really there were never better times for non-whites in america or anyone in the developing world living on land touched by the US MIC. Here at home, the chances of a Black in that euphoirc period running about in a Riva or driving a Talbot Lago were smaller than his or her chances of being lynched. I guess we are all subject to the fog of relativity settling over our memories.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 10:37:12 PM

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gunnar kullenberg

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...well, it serves as an illustration of the fatal weakness of "democracy" -- "americans" have had forty years (if not more) to do something about it, and they have gone along consistently.

"Impunity" is the Holy Grail of the political class, but in order to achieve that, and they are very close, the general population needs to be weakened -- decisively and permanently. -- "Democracy" has proven to be the most flexible and seductive tool to advance this cause.

The fundamental problem is of course also that there is a "war department" that finds itself able to extract from an utterly illegitimate super-state construct -- so if "Americans" are unable to envision a future based on genuinely constructive and moral values, without being supervised from afar by an essentially criminal establishment, empowered and enabled by an originally unintended "meta-jurisdictional reality", well...tough...

The US "health care system" really says all you need to know about "Americans"...

Investigate "911" -- prosecute the criminals -- ...and the "union" will inevitably be dissolved....(which is why the power establishment has refused to investigate)

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 4:47:24 PM

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'The general population needs to be weakened -- decisively and permanently.'

In 1969, I ordered a new full-size Ford , with a 390 motor, AC, power steering, all that stuff - but lacking chrome, from the factory for about $2,500.

I could have bought two of them for what it costs to live a middle-class month today.

Social Security, for example, has barely increased since that time since there is no noticeable inflation.

(If you dig deeper, you may find other examples.)

'Rockets Red Glare' my ass.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 7:07:33 PM

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We shouldn't be thanking the Troops for their service, we should be demanding an apology and explanation.


I'm a Vet. I apologize with all my heart. I was young, dumb and enculturated.


Please forgive me.

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 5:51:40 PM

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Thanks for your service back then...

Submitted on Friday, May 18, 2018 at 6:48:55 PM

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shad williams

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And now...

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 5:42:24 PM

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I'm sorry you were young and gullible and lied to and used to do the dirty work of the U.S war cabal. At least you realize it now. Forgive yourself and maybe you can make a difference now for some other young men and women, about to make the same mistakes and believing the same lies. It's a long shot but...

It's so hard for the youth now - income has actually gone DOWN since the 1970s and jobs are scarce. The truth of the matter is the kleptocrats want us all to die or get killed off except for the few of us left that they need for slaves. It's been obvious for decades and decades.

And GAWD - what an eye-opener in terms of the pay scale and bennies the military officers and even enlistees get... I had no idea. That is luxury pay, for life, and retirement in their 30s.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 6:30:11 AM

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We have all been young, dumb, and misled, and most of us continue to buy into the vile, manipulative, impoverishing, degrading deceptions. So you have no reason to apologize. We are all victims of the massive fraud of our military madness and corporate tyranny. We should not humbly take this sitting down. More valuable and more hopeful for the future -- and the world we leave to our children and grandchildren -- would be to do something about it. The evidence is clear. There is no disputing the verdict. We've been conned. We've been had. We've had a new a**hole ripped into the body politic big enough to drive trillions of dollars through. What are we waiting for? This is our country. Allegedly this is our government. Let's not take it anymore. I've proposed this over and over and no one seems to get it. There's a comment above alluding to $21 trillion unaccounted for. We all know the "official" budget is a hoax. And when Wall Street or our corrupt banks or incompetent auto industry needs money, "ABRACADABRA!" and it magically appears. I use the "official" figures and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt each and every citizen is owed more than $15,000. That's 60K for a family of four. Let's get our money back and starve the military monster ... Peace Dividend Project ... or are we just a bunch of whiny wimps? We owe it to ourselves ... LITERALLY!

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 11:44:48 AM

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Will keep trying to restart Arlo's Group W Bench Movement when this time those who stand for peace will get whatever they want. Ain't had much luck on calling people to the North Bridge, but will keep trying.

Submitted on Sunday, May 20, 2018 at 10:10:06 PM

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Thanks Mark for your increased awareness and honesty. You have learned how to think.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 11:49:12 AM

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shad williams

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I have certainly been enculturated...withdrawal is painful and produces a state of anger and desire to crush the bastids that have manipulated and continue to manipulate me to be blind and not recognize the evil production of our state. I want to bring them down for generations to come, since that is what it will require for minimum restitution.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 5:41:17 PM

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Mark, I've never thanked a soldier for his/her service (and I've been married to 2 military men)...instead I say "I'm sorry that you had to do the things they asked you to do..." and I don't think you need to apologize..at the time I'm sure you thought it was the right thing to do...once upon a time, we all believed we were the 'good guys' but that time is long gone now...IMHO

Submitted on Sunday, May 20, 2018 at 1:53:18 AM

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Kenneth Johnson

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I refuse to blame the young people who chose to join one of our military branches. For one thing, they are young people and tend to believe they are doing good for their country. Many join out of economic necessity. Does anyone under the age of 30 have much of anything figured out?

Certainly no one in his right mind would suggest we disband our military. (?)

The problems lie elsewhere.

(I'm sure the extended Bush family is grateful to those who lay the blame on 'the military'.)

Submitted on Sunday, May 20, 2018 at 3:59:23 AM

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We have nothing to fear but wickedness in high places, greedy political action figures, car bombs, school shooters, razor blades in Halloween candy, being struck by lightning, and pedophile priests. The Department of Defense is away from the Homeland, on corporate business. Please leave your fear after the tone, and we will get back at you.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 12:20:11 PM

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You made me laugh! Thank you. The truth can be weirdly synchronized.

Submitted on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 5:45:57 PM

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