The US Left Must Rebuild Broken Links to Soldiers and Veterans

While the armed forces carry out the mission of US imperialism, millions of working people sit at the heart of that machine, drawn to become soldiers by the promise of economic stability. A Left looking to rebuild links with the working class can’t avoid them.

Soldiers with 2nd-319th Airborne Artillery Unit listen to remarks from the 18th Airborne Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Christoper Donahue, before a redesignation ceremony assigning the name Fort Liberty to what was formerly called Fort Bragg on June 2, 2023, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. (Melissa Sue Gerrits / Getty Images)

Interview by
Derek Seidman

There are few institutions that touch the lives of the US working class more than the armed forces. Around 19 million Americans are military veterans. Millions more are connected to the military through family. Though it varies by branch, the armed forces are ethnically and racially diverse and have seen a rising number of women enlistees. In many ways, the military represents a cross-section of the working class.

This makes the lack of engagement between the US civilian left and soldiers and veterans seem striking, and even a bit alarming. While the armed forces carry out the mission of US imperialism, millions of working people sit at the heart of that machine, many of whom enlisted out of economic desperation and are skeptical of power and authority. Moreover, once enlisted, grievances among rank-and-file soldiers pile up — over racism, misogyny, poverty, and the military’s reckless attitude toward troop health and safety.

This chasm is all the more puzzling given the Left’s proud history of military organizing and of veteran leadership in historic US worker and social movements. From the civil rights movement to the Vietnam antiwar movement to the 1970s rank-and-file worker rebellion, GIs, and veterans have been pivotal actors in fights for justice, peace, and equality.

Moreover, as Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early, and Jasper Craven show in their informative new book, Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs, the military apparatus today is a contested political space with organizing inroads for the Left and labor movement.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which provides a model not-for-profit health care system, is under constant attack by corporate interests and their bipartisan lackeys. Active-duty troops, the overwhelming majority of whom never see battle, face harsh working conditions, health and safety disasters, precarious economic existences, and often intense abuse and bullying. While far-right forces try to recruit disenchanted soldiers and vets from within, Koch-funded elites seek to privatize and profit off the military’s services. Moreover, the armed forces are a pipeline for unions, with many veterans among the ranks of the postal workers, communications workers, and more. Indeed, say Gordon and Early, veterans have the potential to be a vital part of the leadership of a revived labor movement.

The book is an excellent and nuanced introduction to the contours and politics surrounding military labor and veterans’ affairs. For a socialist left looking to rebuild links with the US working class, it’s a vital read.

In this exclusive interview, Derek Seidman talked to Suzanne Gordon and Steve Early about their new book and the many issues it raises about the contentious terrain of veterans’ politics, the struggle to save the VA, the bridges between the military and the labor movement, and much more. Gordon is an award-winning journalist and author who has worked on veterans’ issues for a decade, and Early is a longtime labor organizer and author of several books.

Derek Seidman

To start off, can you say a little bit about why you decided to write this book?

Suzanne Gordon

I’ve been writing about veterans’ issues for about ten years. I helped found a group called Veterans Health Care Policy Institute, which fights against VA privatization. Steve has often been my editor, so for us the book was a logical consequence of that work, but also of the fact that we’ve both been antiwar activists since our college years, which is a very long time. Issues around the military and foreign policy really shaped our political coming of age. Fighting against, first, the Vietnam War, and then all the subsequent US military ventures, has really been part of both of our identities.

Steve Early

I first came into contact with veterans as a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Middlebury College in the fall of 1967. I had been persuaded by the draft that, if you had to go into the military, it was best to do so as an officer. It took me one semester — going to the firing range, marching around and taking orders, being instructed by a recently returned Vietnam vet who seemed quite unhinged by his experience — to conclude that a better way of dealing with the Vietnam War was to end the draft, kick ROTC off campus, and stop the war so that nobody would have to go fight in such a costly and tragic conflict.

I spent the rest of my time in college doing antiwar organizing. I worked for the American Friends Service Committee for a year as a statewide antiwar organizer in Vermont. When I got involved in the labor movement a few years later, I met many younger Vietnam veterans who had just come home and gotten jobs as coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, and they became militant dissident members of the United Mine Workers (UMW). They were part of a reform movement in the early 1970s that overthrew the corrupt, murderous old-guard leadership of the UMW. This created a real opening for a few years for revitalization of the entire labor movement. At the time, the UMW had two hundred thousand members and was much bigger and more highly visible than it is today.

I saw that multiple generations of veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and particularly Vietnam could be catalytic influences in the labor movement — an experience that was confirmed later when I met the great Tony Mazzocchi, a visionary leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). Mazzocchi was a combat veteran and survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. He came back and benefited, along with fifteen million other soldiers, from the original GI Bill. He became a lifelong advocate of free higher education for all, based on the GI Bill model, and of single-payer health care based on the VA healthcare system. He was a tireless campaigner for job safety and health legislation, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1972. He later helped found the Labor Party. He was another example of someone who served in the military, came out, and then got involved in union work and was tremendously influential as a force for progressive change.

So I think there’s a lot of overlap between veterans’ affairs and labor issues that is often ignored but that we highlight in the book. As someone who has spent fifty years in the labor movement — working with veterans who were stewards, local officers, strike activists, and organizing committee members — this connection kind of jumped out to me.

Derek Seidman

You begin your book by surveying the hazardous working conditions that service members face. The level of harm and precarity that military personnel endure — and not at all just combat personnel — was really striking. Can you talk about some of this, especially the severe health problems veterans live with? And can you also specifically address the pervasive sexual harassment and sexual assault that occurs in the miliary?

Suzanne Gordon

There are so many issues that I think the Left should get involved with when it comes to the military. Because it’s the military, I think there’s a lot of confusion or ambivalence toward this issue. What’s unique about our book is that we look at military service as not just service, but a job. I think the harping on “service and sacrifice” leads many people to ignore the fact that there are a lot of sacrifices that service members are asked to make — not sacrificing their lives, but sacrificing their health — that have nothing to do with the risks of combat. That’s because the Department of Defense (DOD) is one of the most reckless employers on the face of the earth when it comes to the safety of its workers, i.e, service members.

Most military service members never see combat. Only about 10 percent of actual service members see combat, and even that 10 percent that is in combat zones is not all shooting or being shot at. There are all kinds of things that the military could do to prevent the kind of injuries that service members suffer from, but in fact they do the opposite.

It starts with indoctrination, which is too often a brutal training regimen where people are assaulted emotionally and physically, and sometimes sexually. Younger cohorts of veterans have many more muscular, skeletal, shoulder, neck, and back problems from all the extreme exercise routines that they go through. There’s a tremendous amount of bullying that’s tolerated, and that leads to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. Around 126 military bases are contaminated with toxic chemicals. You have moldy housing that service members and their families are housed in. They’re not paid enough. And then they incur a lot of debt because the military lets predatory lenders — car dealers, for example — on Navy ships and on bases, and they get people into debt, which has been shown to increase the risk of suicide.

Then there’s military sexual trauma. This is a misogynistic, bullying environment. It impacts mostly women, though there are some men who suffer from military sexual trauma, which can include everything from harassment, to rape, to murder. The military is just not doing enough about this — in fact, it actually punishes women who report rape. They’ve fought every effort to create independent prosecutors and investigators — legislation that was proposed.

Then there’s the scandal of how the military fails to protect troops that are in combat. They bought helmets that were supposed to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices, but they neglected to put in pads so that the helmets fit well enough. The service members in those combat zones had to go to some not-for-profit to get the helmets to fit. Then there was a scandal about the earplugs they hired 3M to produce, which were faulty. The earplugs were supposed to protect them from hearing loss and tinnitus, but they didn’t work. You also have this scandal of hiring KBR, formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root — known during the Vietnam War as Burn & Loot — to dispose of garbage in combat zones. They basically chose a fifteenth-century mechanism of garbage disposal, which is just burn everything — lithium batteries, corpses, animals, chemicals. So now, there’s now an estimated 3.5 million veterans who have been potentially impacted by these toxic exposures, breathing in this stuff 24-7.

Steve Early

What we try to highlight is that military service, stripped of the flag-waving and all the patriotic trappings, is a job. It’s work, in a highly unregulated industry, with no protective labor legislation, and no antidiscrimination statutes that you can invoke. For soldiers on active duty, in the US military, it’s a felony for them to join a union or go on strike. This is a legal straitjacket that dates back to the era of the GI antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, when the need for a “servicemen’s union” was widely discussed among uniformed foes of the war.

Half the military workforce today is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, so we’re talking about young people. It’s a demographic without much prior full-time work experience. Men and women, without many other civilian job opportunities, who are looking for stable employment, steady pay, health insurance coverage, subsidized housing, food, and clothing. The promise of job training is a very big part of that enticing package and much emphasized by military recruiters. Where else, outside of much-harder-to-get-into building trades apprenticeship programs, do you get paid to learn new skills?

Then there’s the longer-term promise that you will have affordable health care when you get out and that you’ll have access to affordable higher education through the GI Bill. This legislation, in its modern-day form, has enabled at least a million post-9/11 veterans to avoid becoming deeply indebted, although many still have to do some borrowing to meet their college or university expenses — and thousands have been fleeced by shady for-profit institutions that hoover up a huge amount of GI Bill money in return for diplomas of sometimes questionable value.

That’s why people go into the military. And just think what the very different results for our society would be if the federal government, instead of putting 20,000 recruiters in the field and having 1,400 hiring offices and programs in 3,500 high schools, offered training and job opportunities as health care workers or teachers or construction workers? Even with a recruitment budget of $1.5 billion a year, the Pentagon would have great difficulty competing with that because poor and working-class young people would take these other pathways to good jobs and benefits and productive careers.

There’s a lot of organizing work that can still be done among some citizen soldiers. Our union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), down in Texas supports the Texas State Employees Union, a longtime open-shop, public sector union. They’ve now created a Military Caucus and signed up members of the Texas National Guard who are concerned about workplace issues and problems. They’re upset about their Republican governor stripping them of tuition assistance and cutting other benefits and deploying them, on an open-ended basis, to “protect” the US-Mexico border as part of an election-year political stunt. That’s at least one concrete example of organizing soldiers as workers that’s underway right now in Texas. There’s another effort along the same lines among National Guard members that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is trying to recruit in Connecticut.

Derek Seidman

It feels like a defense of the VA health system is one core undercurrent of your book. Can you talk about what the VA health system looks like? Also, the corporate and rightwing attacks on the VA health care system feature prominently in your book. Readers might be surprised to know that many of the same corporate and right-wing forces that are working to degrade and privatize just about every public service in US society are doing the same in the military world.

Whether it’s hospital services, or military housing, or mental health support, there’s been concerted lobbying and political efforts by corporate forces, including the Koch brothers, to outsource, privatize, and profit off of services for active-duty personnel and veterans. Can you discuss this?

Suzanne Gordon

Let’s start with explaining how the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the VA’s health system, works. The VHA is the largest and only publicly funded and fully integrated health care system in our country. Unlike Medicare, it’s both the payer and provider of care. The VHA has almost four hundred thousand employees, a third of whom are veterans.

Of the nineteen million living veterans today, only about nine million are enrolled in the VA, and only about six million use it daily or depend on it every year for the majority of their health care. This rate of VHA enrollment is due to the fact that Congress refuses to pay the full costs of war and limits eligibility for health services to those who have certain discharge statuses as well as a proven service-connected disability and/or low income. Most of the six million veterans who totally depend on the VHA most are people of color, low income, or women.

The VA delivers health care from discharge to grave. Countless studies document that the healthcare it provides is superior to the care delivered to most of us in the private sector. It’s also more cost effective because all the VA staff are on salary, so there’s no incentive to recommend futile, unnecessary treatments and fraudulently bill the government and recommend unnecessary tests and procedures as occurs so often in the private sector.

The VHA also excels with emergency care and suicide prevention. They’ve integrated mental health and primary care, which is unlike any other system. So, if you go to your primary care doctor and you say, “I’m feeling anxious,” they won’t refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist. They’ll take you down the hall, and you can meet with those psychologists. They have nutritionists, pharmacists, and social workers. They also integrate what are known as social determinants of health into the system, so they deal with things like homelessness and education and job retraining.

Although the Kochs and the Republicans have promoted this idea that there’s always a long wait in the VA, the wait times are in fact much shorter than in the private sector. That’s because there’s telehealth, and there’s just more of a commitment to get people in.

It’s a really impressive system that works extremely well. Around 92 percent of veterans, when polled, say they like the VA. But that’s the problem — if you have a system that works, then you have a popular system, and that means that $128 billion this year alone is going into the pockets of public sector employees and serving the public. The private sector can’t stand that. The Optums and the United Healthcares, the pharmaceutical industry that has to negotiate lower prices with the VA, find it odious that such a government system delivers better care at lower costs with lower wait times. They are determined to destroy the VA by picking on every little glitch or scandal and amplifying it through the media.

The Koch brothers have spent millions funding an astroturf veteran group called the Concerned Veterans for America that is dedicated to promoting bad news about the VA and privatizing it. Other dark money groups like the American Enterprise Institute and Pacific Research Institute are determined to tarnish the reputation of the VA. They do this, not just because they want the money that’s going into the public coffers to be diverted to the private coffers, but also because they hate the idea of a government program that functions well. The constellation of dark money forces that are trying to privatize the public schools, the post offices, and Medicare are trying to privatize the VA.

And unfortunately, they’re succeeding. In 2018, they passed something called the VA Mission Act, which basically diverts more and more VA patients and VA money to private sector providers. It’s proven to not work, and yet coalitions of Democrats and Republicans have supported this legislation. It’s really disturbing. Only seventy Democrats in the House voted against the Mission Act. Only Bernie Sanders in the Senate and several Republicans from rural states voted against it. Now some Democrats are worried about money leaching out of the VA, without acknowledging that they helped make that happen.

Steve Early

As someone who spent many years trying to help workers with job-related injuries or illnesses, I know, from firsthand experience, that state compensation programs for civilian workers are often difficult to navigate. The benefit payouts are insufficient. Employers dispute whether someone has actually been injured on the job. Cases can be drawn out. And even when people get workers’ comp payments and treatment, the latter is limited to the health problem that’s job-related. If they’re sufficiently disabled, they lose their previous job-based health care coverage and then can’t pay other medical bills for themselves or their family anymore. So compared to VA coverage, that’s a very fragmented, limited, and insufficient system.

In contrast, the VA gives veterans the full range of health care coverage even if you get in with just a partial disability rating. For example, if you lost your hearing as a result of your military service, you won’t just get your hearing aid, but wider, coordinated care. It’s not fragmented, it’s comprehensive. VA rehabilitation programs are much better than any state workers’ comp system. So as Suzanne says, the VA is a model for how a broader national public health care system might operate. And if we think of military veterans as workers, it’s also our best-functioning workers’ comp system for the millions of people who are able to get into the VA, based on having a service-related injury or illness.

Derek Seidman

Your book really demonstrates that the question of veteran politics, identity, and representation is contested terrain. For example, you show that there are major generational and ideological divides between the old guard of veterans service organizations (VSOs) and the newer, younger, more diverse ones — and you also show that even just among the newer and younger VSOs, there are major political and strategic divisions.

Moreover, you have everyone from — as you mentioned — the Koch brothers to Bernie Sanders trying to shape veteran politics and policies. In broad strokes, can you discuss this, and also why it’s important for people on the Left to understand veteran politics as contested terrain?

Steve Early

The nineteen million Americans who served in the military are often viewed as a monolithic bloc. They are thought of being, typically, older, conservative, white males with American flag pins and Legion caps, marching in patriotic parades, voting Republican, and cheering every new war that comes down the pike. Of course, part of that stereotype is true of some of the millions of people who served in the military. But we want readers to understand that’s not an accurate reflection of what’s actually a population with much greater racial, gender, and age diversity.

The Left has understandably always related well to the minority of veterans who were conscientious objectors and antiwar activists. GI dissent has played an important role in strengthening and broadening the base of antiwar movements and bringing wars to swifter conclusions. I think, historically, progressives are familiar with groups like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War or Veterans for Peace, as well as successor organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War, which morphed into About Face, and Common Defense, a progressive veterans’ group.

Part of the diversity in the veteran population also involves this dual identity of being a trade unionist and a veteran. If you’ve got a million people who’ve served in the military and who are now working at the VA or at the post office, or in building trades jobs or manufacturing jobs, or are telephone workers and members of CWA, that’s a constituency within the labor movement to which the latter needs to pay more attention. The labor movement should be tracking which of their members have served in the military and trying to offer special training and education programs for veterans, while creating more veterans’ committees and caucuses.

CWA has done a number of training programs with Common Defense as part of its Veterans Organizing Institute through a CWA program called the Veterans for Social Change network. This has been a way of trying to mobilize labor-oriented veterans to counter right-wing recruitment of former military personnel. Because otherwise more vets will just end up in the MAGA-land formations that surrounded the Capitol on January 6, 2021, where a disproportionate number of Donald Trump supporters in that crowd had backgrounds in both law enforcement and the military.

Suzanne Gordon

The mainstream media also loves to play up the “crazy veteran” stereotype. While it’s true there are a disproportionate number of veterans who are involved in mass shootings and are perpetrators of police brutality, you never see articles in the New York Times about groups like Veterans for Peace or Common Defense. The public only has an image of a very narrow spectrum of veteran opinion.

I really think these progressive veteran groups deserve a shout out. Common Defense members are supporting US representative Ruben Gallego in his campaign to replace Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema. They also helped elect Chris Deluzio from Pennsylvania who is now on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. If there were more vets like them on that committee, it would reflect a broader range of political views than it currently does. And there would be more members questioning the impact of VA privatization.

I think the assumption that most veterans are automatically hostile to left or progressive ideas is incorrect. Veterans are really varied in their political views. They’re very reachable, particularly if you can claim with some credibility that you support their disability benefit and health care programs. Obviously, if veterans only listen to Fox News and nobody else talks to them, then the “right-wing veteran” image becomes more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we’ve encouraged health care reform activists to learn more about the VA and join the struggle against its privatization. If more progressives become defenders of the VA, as Bernie Sanders has been for many years, then veterans and their families will notice that. Over time, it will help counter Fox News claims that the Left hates or looks down upon people who served in the military.

Derek Seidman

You also discuss how big corporations and billionaires engage in a kind of “veteran-washing” where they try to burnish their reputations through seemingly pro-veteran initiatives that have a lot more flash than substance. You bring up the examples of Walmart and Amazon, for example, and how they announced they’d hire more veterans — but in jobs that were systematically stressful, degrading, and nonunionized.

And you explore how corporations help bankroll new veterans’ groups and why this can be a problem — for example, it aligns veterans’ groups with corporate privatization schemes that ultimately degrade veteran care. Can you talk about the problems you see in the relationship between corporations and veterans’ groups?

Suzanne Gordon

If you look at the annual reports of groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, you’ll find that they accept funding from the hospital and pharmaceutical industry and other large corporate interests. It’s no surprise that they have supported bills and initiatives that will lead to the privatization of the VA.

Steve Early

In the private sector, you have veterans who have good unionized jobs, but I think less attention has been paid to the situation of those in nonunion workplaces. Some veterans are getting very involved in key organizing campaigns at companies like Amazon, where there is a big gap between corporate rhetoric and workplace reality. For example, a bunch of these anti-union employers — including Walmart, Starbucks, Comcast, Sprint, and T-Mobile — rallied around a Trump administration suicide-reduction initiative called PREVENTS. They were all very eager to be part of a new “public-private partnership” that was designed to strengthen mental health for veterans in the workplace. So they signed a pledge to “Hire our Heroes” and treat them well.

In the case of Amazon, management promised to hire up to one hundred thousand veterans by the end of next year. As part of this pledge, these same employers committed to reducing workplace risk factors for suicide, such as financial stress, emotional stress, and substance abuse. They pledged to create a safe and inclusive work environment and to create employee resource groups to support newly hired veterans.

At Amazon, men and women who have been in the military are encouraged to join an official support group called “Warriors at Amazon.” But management takes a very hostile stance against any unapproved “affinity group,” like the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), that’s trying to improve conditions in a notoriously unsafe and stressful work environment. In fact, when the ALU was trying to gain a toehold at Amazon warehouses on Staten Island and elsewhere, management made a special effort to hire a few veterans from military intelligence backgrounds to keep other Amazon workers, including fellow veterans, under surveillance, as part of its ongoing union-busting campaign.

In terms of such organizing, unions need to be on the lookout themselves for people with other types of military experience and training. They’re not necessarily going to be industrial spies or stereotypical right-wingers. They may be people who actually have leadership skills, personal courage, and experience with teamwork — some of the positive aspects of military service. That practical experience with collective activity can be put to good use in a nonunion workplace where people do need to be really brave to stand up against a union-busting employer like Amazon or Walmart. As these campaigns expand, I think we’re going to see more veterans become key labor movement activists.

Derek Seidman

You note that many veterans became postal workers and teachers, and many also take government jobs. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and CWA come up in your book, and you also discuss the progressive veterans’ group Common Defense and efforts to build relations with the labor movement. Can you talk a bit more about the relationship between the labor movement and veterans? And what more could the labor movement be doing to build inroads with veterans?

Steve Early

There are two critical and parallel anti-privatization campaigns where there’s already a lot of community-labor campaigning underway. One is to save the VA from further incremental privatization, while the other is to save the United States Postal Service (USPS) from outsourcing as well. It’s no coincidence that both of these federal employers are a big source of jobs for former military folks.

In the Veterans Health Administration, close to a third of the workforce, about one hundred thousand people, are veterans. So one of the distinctive features of the VA is a culture of solidarity between patients and providers. You have veterans taking care of other veterans, and they’re doing it as doctors, nurses, therapists, and support staff.

A lot of them are active in the major VA unions, such as AFGE, National Nurses United (NNU) — which represents about twenty thousand VA nurses — and several other labor organizations that also have VA units. They are all part of what is one of the most heavily unionized health care systems in the country.

That makes the fight against VA privatization a critical labor struggle that could benefit from broader union support. In the community, many people not connected to unions want to know how to thank veterans for their service. Well, they can contact members of Congress and express understandable concern about the impact of the privatization on jobs and services, which are hard for veterans to find outside the VA.

The same thing is true of the postal workers’ struggle. Historically, the Postal Service has been a way that men and women leaving the military could trade one uniform for another and then provide a vital public service for their community. About 110,000 postal workers represented by the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), the letter carriers and the mail handlers, are veterans. It’s a key source of employment for former service members who are African American. And it’s a public sector job with decent benefits and pay — and until recently, job security.

Particularly under the Trump administration, the Postal Service was a major target for an ongoing privatization push. That is still a threat today under Joe Biden’s administration, because Biden hasn’t fired Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. The mission of this super-wealthy Trump appointee was basically to find ways to dismantle the Postal Service and outsource more of its work to private mail delivery companies. Thanks to widespread community labor resistance, some of DeJoy’s plans were blocked, particularly during the 2020 election when they would have disrupted and delayed mail-ballot voting. But he’s still on the job, working hard to downsize USPS.

I think these are two struggles that many nonveterans could get behind very easily and help win. Thwarting privatization is certainly in our own interest, as people who want reliable public mail service and a good working model for health care for all.

Derek Seidman

The US left — and the global left, for that matter — have long histories of orienting toward soldiers and veterans. GIs and vets, in alliance with civilian organizers, played absolutely crucial roles in major twentieth-century social movements, from the movement against the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement to the 1970s rank-and-file labor upsurge. But today there isn’t a ton of energy or attention given to the military by the US left. It’s not broadly viewed as a terrain for organizing and contention. Why do you think this is? And why do you think people on the Left — even those skeptical of the military’s aims — should pay more attention to active-duty personnel and veterans?

Suzanne Gordon

The last time there was a lot of organizing of active-duty service members and veterans was during the Vietnam War, and there was a draft, so people were perceived as being hauled into these conflicts, often against their will. Today’s all-volunteer army has created a civilian-military divide and made service members feel they’re the only ones signing up and making that sacrifice. On the other side, many civilians think, well, these people volunteered, so they must be gung ho about military intervention.

But that’s not true. There’s an economic draft. I mean, some people do sign up to “kill the bad guys,” but most of them sign up because they want the GI Bill or health care or job training. Also, we used to have military bases in Brooklyn and San Francisco, in more liberal towns, but almost all of them were closed. Now the bases are located mostly in the South and Southwest. Many people don’t know any service members because there are so few nearby. During and after World War II, everybody knew a veteran. During the Vietnam War, I had male friends who were drafted or joined the Reserves or National Guard to avoid being drafted. But now there’s a much greater military-civilian divide.

Steve Early

That divide is definitely a by-product of having an “all-volunteer force” for the last half century. When we no longer had the pressure of the draft on millions of people, it became harder to organize against the Vietnam War in its final stages. I think everybody who’s tried to organize against multiple US wars in the Middle East since then has discovered that it’s more challenging without lots of people facing the possibility of conscription — and therefore being forced to pay more attention to US foreign and military policy and its possible adverse impact on them personally.

The demographics of the DOD’s active-duty workforce have certainly changed since the twentieth-century heyday of the “citizen soldier” to the point where military service has become a kind of family business. Many young people enlist these days because their moms and aunts or uncles and fathers served, so you end up with multigenerational military families even if they don’t include career military people — and largely hailing from nine or ten states that also have a disproportionate number of military bases.

The burden of military service is not just shared by a much narrower slice of the total population. The 1 percent who serve have also been fashioned into what our friend Danny Sjursen, a retired Army major and West Point graduate, calls “a homegrown foreign legion.” In the post-9/11 era of “forever wars,” that kind of US military has indeed become more formidable “terrain for organizing and contention.”