Military Haves and Have-Nots

W.J. Astore

Privates should make more, generals should make less, in today’s military

My great nephew recently reported to the local MEPS (military entrance processing station) and took the oath of office. He’s enlisting in the Marine Corps and I wish him all the best.

In November 2021, with him in mind, I wrote an article, “Should you join the U.S. military?” For him, the answer was yes, and I respect his decision.

Enlisting in the U.S. military is a big step for any young adult. And there are certain benefits to it like health care, money for education, some kind of housing (or pay for housing), and of course job training and an identity, e.g “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

There are many drawbacks as well, the biggest, of course, being death. 

Death is a high price to earn a place on the “Gold Star” tree at the White House (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

One that we often don’t think of, though, is low pay, which is why Andrea Mazzarino’s article at TomDispatch is so telling. Mazzarino, a military spouse, reminds us that more than a few military members are “food insecure.” In other words, they often have to choose between paying their rent and other bills and going hungry, which is another way of saying that the military is a (distorted) reflection of American society.

Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article:

I recently interviewed Tech Sergeant Daniel Faust, a full-time Air Force reserve member responsible for training other airmen. He’s a married father of four who has found himself on the brink of homelessness four times between 2012 and 2019 because he had to choose between necessities like groceries and paying the rent. He managed to make ends meet by seeking assistance from local charities. And sadly enough, that airman has been in all-too-good company for a while now. In 2019, an estimated one in eight military families were considered food insecure. In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, that figure rose to nearly a quarter of them. More recently, one in six military families experienced food insecurity, according to the advocacy group Military Family Advisory Network.

You would think that a military with a colossal yearly budget of $858 billion would pay its troops enough so that they wouldn’t go hungry, but it simply isn’t so. Much of that colossal budget goes to the weapons makers (perhaps we should call them the wealth-takers?). Big companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. Meanwhile, Private Jones, or even Sergeant Smith, is left struggling to put food on the table.

This is a perennial problem. My dad told me how he made $30 a month in the CCC in 1937 even as Army privates were making $19 a month. Small wonder that so few young men leaving the CCC decided to enlist in the military, even after hearing rah-rah recruitment speeches, my dad noted wryly.

Contrast relatively low pay for enlisted troops with the high pay of general officers. The latter make six-figure salaries (with lots of perks) and retire with six-figure pensions. They also usually “sell” their military service to weapons makers after they spin through the revolving door of the military-industrial complex. Lloyd Austin is typical. After retiring as a general officer, he made roughly $1.4 million from 2016 to 2019 in executive compensation from Raytheon. That was, of course, in addition to a generous government pension that paid him another million or so.

No one expects now-Secretary of Defense Austin to have taken vows of poverty upon retirement, but he sure could pay closer attention to the needs of the troops under him. To put it simply, privates should make more and generals less in today’s military.

Young military members are much on my mind as my great nephew prepares for boot camp. Can’t we make sure that they have enough money so that they don’t have to choose between food and rent?

“The Harder I Worked Physically, the Less Money I Made”: The Harsh Reality of Life in America

My father after being drafted in 1942
My father after being drafted in 1942

W.J. and J.A. Astore

My Dad, Julius Anthony Astore, was a child of the Great Depression.  Born in 1917, he had to quit high school in 1933 to help support his family.  In 1935 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, working in forestry and as a firefighter in Oregon until he left in 1937.

Finding a job after he left the CCC was tough, but eventually Dad got one working at F.B. Washburn’s Candy Company during the Christmas rush.

Here’s how Dad described his job:

I was hired for a five week job starting at 6:00PM and my night shift would be over 6:00AM the next morning.  I would have Saturdays and Sundays off.  My work hours would add up to sixty hours a week and I would get twenty cents an hour.  Total twelve dollars a week.  Those days there wasn’t any time-and-a-half after forty hours.  It was quite a grind.  I had to sugar hard candy that was shaped like a small peach stone.  I won’t go into detail but it was a very tiring job.

From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.

Time goes by and I thought I was going to be laid off at the end of five weeks [but] I was put to work on the day shift permanently.  That was in 1938, four years before I was drafted into the Army and introduced to World War II.

At Washburn’s candy factory, Dad operated a lollipop machine, candy cookers, and he mixed sugar.  His starting salary was $9 a week (working forty-five hours).  By 1942 he was making $17 a week.  As with most factory jobs, the work was tedious, physically demanding, and unrewarding.  Writing ruefully to his brother Gino in 1938, and comparing factory work to his time spent in the CCC, Dad wrote “The CCCs are a helluva lot better than that place [Washburn’s].”

When Dad was drafted into the Army in February 1942, he took a major cut in salary.  From making roughly $70 a month at Washburn’s Candy Factory, his salary dropped to $21 a month as an Army private (which was still $9 less than what he had earned in the CCC in 1935!).  When he was discharged from the Army in January 1946 as a corporal technician, he was finally making what he had earned at Washburn’s, about $69 a month.

Although it’s true that the American soldier was paid better than his British counterpart, it’s still shocking to hear that U.S. privates were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific for less than $30 a month basic pay.

The truth is simply this: Even the richest, most prosperous country in the world grossly underpaid its frontline troops.  While contractors got rich on the homefront, never risking a hair on their precious necks, young Americans fought and died for peanuts.

Hasn’t it always been this way?  Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of Marxism and class warfare.  Yes, some of the worst abuses of workers have been curbed since my Dad suffered through the Great Depression, but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be “downsized” (i.e., fired); scared that they’ll be replaced by robots.  Thus they put up and shut up.

For all the rhetoric about the dignity of work in the USA, Dad’s words still ring true: so-called unskilled labor, or demanding physical work, is still undervalued and disrespected in our country.  And for all the talk of “supporting our troops,” those young men and women sent into harm’s way are still paid little when you consider they’re risking their necks.

Which makes me think of another one of my Dad’s sayings: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”  Especially if we don’t work to change them.