The Great Society in Camouflage

The culture of today's Army derives from a uniqueblend of liberal and conservative philosophies. Willit survive peacetime transformations intact?

The Military --

The Great Society in Camouflage


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THE day before Thanksgiving, 1995, near the Fort Drum Army base, in upstate New York, Sergeant Harvey Andrews's sixteen-year-old stepson supposedly threatened to beat up the driver of his school bus. By the end of the day the sergeant and his family had been notified that they would be evicted from military housing. For the Army the bus incident was the last straw. Division headquarters had already put the sergeant on notice about the boy's alleged gang-related activities. When the local high school reported the incident on the bus, Command Sergeant Major Donald Fike called in Andrews, an infantry squad leader, for a meeting with the garrison commander, who ordered Andrews to move his family immediately.


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Andrews squatted on the brown carpet in the empty living room of Apartment 442C on the day he was to depart. He said that the cost of relocating would eat up his family's savings. "I'm broke and I'm screwed. I don't think it's fair." Eleven families were ejected last year from military housing here at Fort Drum. Fair or not, that is how the Army polices itself.

Today's Army thrives on an unusual combination of a conservative emphasis on accountability and a liberal emphasis on diversity. Violation of either code will damage a soldier's career. Undergirding this two-part approach is the sturdiest social safety net in America. The combination works -- indeed, the Army may be the only institution in America where we can see what Lyndon Johnson's Great Society could have been. The Army is virtually drug-free, and enjoys far better race relations than any other major social institution in the country. It is almost a Japanese version of America -- relatively harmonious, extremely hierarchical, and nearly always placing the group above the individual. Even more than in Japan, the arenas of life -- work, home, and leisure -- are connected. Leave your lawn unmowed and your boss may upbraid you. Or, as Sergeant Andrews discovered, let your kid get out of hand and you may lose your home.

While liberalism everywhere recedes, the Army increasingly appears to be on a different road from the rest of the nation. As the sociologists Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler note in a new book, , black males in the Army are one twelfth as likely to die violently as are other American black males. Black soldiers are not only less likely to use drugs than black civilians but also less likely to do so than white soldiers, they add. The 18,200 black officers in the armed forces, more than half of whom are in the Army, form the largest group of black executives in the country. The Army, Moskos and Butler observe, is the only place in America where blacks routinely boss around whites.

But the Army culture has great costs. Soldiers and their families give up many freedoms to this all-encompassing society. "There's not an awful lot of privacy in the military -- it's kind of a goldfish bowl," says Major Leslie Nepper, the former chief of administrative law for Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division. All active-duty soldiers in the Army, for example, must take an HIV test every twenty-four months. Base housing regulations minutely govern not only how to take care of one's house (avoid drinking red Kool Aid in carpeted areas) but also how to take care of one's family (children under age twelve may not be left unsupervised). Have an extramarital affair here and you can be charged with adultery, although affairs are usually handled less formally, with a letter of reprimand from one's commander. A single episode of racial or sex discrimination can get you thrown out.

Not surprisingly, supporting this strict version of the Great Society is expensive for the taxpayers. John Luddy, an aide to a Republican senator, estimates total family-related costs of the Defense Department to be more than $25 billion a year. Although this year the military budget declined by only 1.7 percent in real terms, most analysts agree that the Pentagon is in for big cuts next year and thereafter. And even if overall military appropriations do not shrink appreciably, Congress has increasingly shown a preference for high-tech weapons over personnel benefits. It is doubtful that the Army's current way of life, with its vast social-support system, can endure.

WHEN I met him, Specialist Marc Walker, at twenty-two, had found a home in this military Brigadoon. He and his wife had a purple Camaro and a black Isuzu Trooper parked in the driveway of their two-bedroom pastel-blue apartment in Fort Drum's Remington Village. They paid no rent, and they were not charged for their electricity, gas, or water. Inside, the Walkers had a powerful stereo with Bose speakers, a twenty-seven-inch television, two leather couches, and a nursery for their newborn daughter. What they valued most was the secure environment in which to raise kids. The setting couldn't have been more different from the rough neighborhood of Chicago's South Side where Walker grew up. Here he could leave his keys in his parked car. With its trim lawns, pristine streets, and safe parks, Fort Drum was the nicest place Walker had ever lived. "It's almost make-believe," he marveled. It may look like a middle-class suburb, but it is mainly occupied by soldiers whose base pay is less than $25,000 a year. "What we have is essentially a lot of low-income housing," Colonel Joel Williamson, then the garrison commander, told me. "But what we also have is a chain of command that enforces standards of conduct."

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