m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

The Military -- December 1996

The Great Society in Camouflage

The culture of today's Army derives from a unique
blend of liberal and conservative philosophies. Will
it survive peacetime transformations intact?


by Thomas E. Ricks

Army Community

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.


Also see Sex in Camouflage,
a Web-only conversation with Thomas E. Ricks on the Army's sexual-abuse scandal; and Reinventing the Military, a Flashback exploring the military's efforts, past and present, to redefine itself in a rapidly changing world

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, All That We Can Be:Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, 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."

At the apex of that chain of command, presiding over Fort Drum's community of 25,000 soldiers, dependents, and civilian workers, is Major General Thomas Burnette Jr., a slight, fine-boned paratrooper with gold-rimmed glasses.

The general's daily command-group meeting starts at 6:30 A.M. sharp. On the day that I attended, the meeting touched on everything from Bosnia (the U.S. peacekeeping mission was pulling staff officers from Fort Drum into Europe) to the trouble that Sergeant Andrews's stepson and his buddies had reportedly caused. Two other families would also be evicted and barred from military housing; six others would receive final warnings.

General Burnette later ticked off the tools at his disposal. For drugs "we have the no-toleration rule -- and urinalysis," he said. "If you're an officer or an NCO [sergeant] and you use drugs, you're out of here. If you're a first-term soldier, we'll try to rehabilitate you." For racism the philosophy is similar: "A junior soldier, you try to change the soldier. If you're a supervisor and you're a Mark Fuhrman-type racist, you'll be thrown out of the Army." Sex discrimination, Burnette said, "is just as bad as racial discrimination, and you just don't put up with it." For spouse abuse, "we've got a program designed to identify any abuse, and it leads to mandatory counseling."

And, of course, a soldier's boss will be notified of almost any offense committed by the soldier or a member of his or her family -- from shoplifting to failing to maintain one's house.


THE past fifteen years have seen a revolution in the Army. Historically a bachelor-oriented conscript force, it has gone from being about two-thirds unmarried in 1955 to being almost two-thirds married today. Much Reagan-era defense spending actually went toward building a social safety net for the new family-based all-volunteer force.

If the Defense Department were a for-profit organization, it would rank as the nation's second-largest private day-care operator. In 1994 alone it paid out some $260 million to subsidize its day-care network. Fort Drum's two centers put many civilian facilities to shame. "I had some ladies in here the other day from a center on the outside, and their mouths were hanging open," says Jill Rupp, the preschool program director at one of the two centers. Full-time day care of up to sixty hours a week costs a bargain $190 to $379 a month, depending on the family's income. Babysitting charges are only $2.50 an hour.

A few blocks away the Guthrie Ambulatory Health Clinic dispenses free care and prescription drugs to military families. "It is probably the closest thing to socialized medicine that the United States currently has," says Colonel Thomas Smith, a family practitioner at the clinic.

When I visited the base dental clinic, Colonel Larry Camp was supervising the repair of soldiers' teeth. For socioeconomic reasons, he told me, about half of all recruits arrive with serious dental problems, such as decay, abscesses, and gum infections. By the time they leave the Army, he said, "they're generally much better than the general population."

Even law enforcement is different inside the Army. Base residents complained when their familiar MPs were deployed to Haiti and replaced by a force of National Guard MPs from California. "They were extremely overzealous, very jumpy," Colonel Kenneth Ellis told me. Unlike typical police officers, MPs at Fort Drum have the time and power to practice preventive policing. If they are called to a domestic dispute, for example, they will require one spouse to leave the house for the night.

At the two base gyms soldiers work out on Nautilus machines, StairMasters, Versaclimbers, and rowing machines. Others swim in the Olympic-size and twenty-five-meter pools, and play on the five racquetball courts and three NCAA-regulation basketball courts. Everything is free.


MUCH more than corporate America, the Army has built equal opportunity (EO) into its way of life. Diversity isn't just an abstract value. "Barking, growling, oinking, and whistling" are forbidden behavior, says First Sergeant Donald Young to a classroom full of sergeants. These noises constitute sexual harassment. Even calling someone a "wimp" for failing a physical-ability test can be perceived as a violation, he says.

Not one of the soldiers laughs. This is stuff that nowadays can kill a career. Driving home that point, Young displays one of the most dreaded pieces of paper in the Army: DA Form 72-79-R, the equal-opportunity-complaint form. "As leaders," he says, "if you have knowledge of sexual harassment [and fail to act], you could be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, along with the perpetrators."

Four full-time EO officials at Fort Drum, backed up by more than a hundred representatives in the companies and battalions, make inquiries into all complaints. These officials also promote observances such as Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 - October 15), Disability Awareness Month (October), and National Native American Indian Heritage Month (November).

Conservatives argue that an emphasis on diversity is divisive. Former Vice President Dan Quayle, for example, charged in a speech last year that such efforts "seek to turn America into a nation of groups rather than a nation of individuals." Indeed, the corps of EO enforcers, operating outside the chain of command, sometimes bears a passing resemblance to the political officers of the old Soviet Army. But the evidence here indicates that Quayle is wrong. The Army's heavy-handed efforts to promote diversity are depolarizing, because they have helped to remove racism as a credible excuse for failure while giving blacks and women faith in the institution.

To be sure, many white male soldiers distrust the whole equal-opportunity apparatus. "I believe in the EO, but I don't believe in all this racial bullshit," Donald Fike, the sergeant major, told me. He is a drawling Texan who is more at home talking about deer hunting. He offered a new formulation: "There's black, white, Hispanic -- and military. That's a new ethnic group." Indeed, whites and blacks who make careers in the military tend to have more in common with one another than with civilian members of their own races. But an important reason for the relative racial harmony is that blacks and women in the Army draw reassurance from the existence of the EO system. Take Sergeant First Class Roderick Marshall, who is black. He is one "squared-away" soldier. Even his head is right-angled -- shaved on the sides, flat on top. Service in the Gulf War and Somalia has won him the right to wear two combat patches. "He's the best platoon sergeant I've ever seen," his commander, Captain Joe Vancosky, told me.

Marshall had recently seen two top sergeants in his unit, including the all-powerful battalion sergeant major, relieved of duty as a result of sexual-harassment charges. Command Sergeant Major Johnnie L. Johnson's case was unambiguous: he visited a female soldier on guard duty in Haiti, attempted to send away her partner, stroked her back, and tried to hold her hand. In the other case First Sergeant Orman Feres-Olton sent a birthday card to a female squad sergeant which said, "If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right." Allegedly, he also asked her if she was "into oral sex" and told her he had sexual dreams about her -- although some of the soldiers in his old unit are skeptical of that testimony. They believe that the female sergeant used the EO complaint to cover up her own incompetence -- such as, allegedly, leaving soldiers on guard duty in Haiti for eighteen hours at a stretch. "She . . . used the EO like an ax -- got him relieved as soon as the complaint was filed," says Specialist David Maurer. Under nonjudicial "Article 15" proceedings handled by their commanders, both the sergeant major and the first sergeant were found guilty of sexual harassment, effectively limiting the horizons of their military careers. Sergeant Major Johnson has since retired from the Army.

Seeing two men he deeply admired hurt by EO cases didn't shake Marshall's faith in the EO. "It keeps a lot of folks honest," he told me. "If we didn't have it, we'd have a lot more racism." He said that the last time he encountered racism in the Army was "way back in 1980." He said he sees it all the time in the civilian world, among blacks as well as whites -- a Black Muslim in Houston asked him why he was wearing the uniform of "the people who raped your mother."

Colonel James Dubik, who until recently was an infantry commander at Fort Drum, recalls just one clear-cut racial incident in his entire brigade in one recent year. A white sergeant, waiting in line at a field PX in Haiti, grew impatient with a Caribbean soldier who was puzzled by American money, and yelled a racial epithet. "The sergeant is out of the Army now," Dubik says. "He was unfit to be an NCO."


THE end of the draft, in 1973, ratified the separation between American elites and the military. Since then the Army has to a large extent cast its lot with the lower half of American society. Down in the warehouse area of Fort Drum, far from the hotshot infantry brigades huddled around division headquarters, I found Private First Class Chip McCann working as a typical soldier in a typical unit, Sergeant Marshall's Charlie Company, 10th Forward Support Battalion. "I was a problem child," he said. "Without the Army, I'd be dead or in jail." When he went home to Long Beach, California, he would find that his old friends were peddling drugs. In contrast, he planned to begin taking college-level criminology courses and eventually to become a policeman.

Taking a break from unloading Charlie Company's trucks from a train after an exercise in Louisiana, McCann, a Muslim, removed the ham before he ate a sandwich. "You're going to find racism wherever you go," he said. "But in the Army you can get in real trouble for it."

Another soldier in his platoon, Specialist Juanita Habersham, had some of the characteristics of a Newt Gingrich nightmare: one of twelve children from a rural South Carolina family, she was a single black mother living in government housing, with no plans to move out anytime soon. Far from being a burden on American society, however, Habersham was helping to defend it. As a U.S. Army medic, she had been under mortar attack in Somalia and had pulled endless guard duty in Haiti.

She wasn't complaining; she had just re-enlisted. After a wild youth, the round-faced twenty-three-year-old said, she had learned responsibility in the Army. "I pay my bills on time; I get to places on time, even early." Soon after she spoke, she was awarded the Army Achievement Medal for "keen foresight, sound judgment, and professional competence."

If there is a dividing line in Charlie Company, it is between men and women. Pregnant women don't go with the unit when it deploys overseas, as it has twice in recent years. "I have one soldier who missed Somalia and Haiti because she was pregnant," Sergeant First Class Agustin Hernandez told me. "Now I've got two more who are pregnant." Like many other male sergeants, Hernandez said that women in deployable units shouldn't be allowed to become pregnant. Captain Vancosky told me that when two women moved into his barracks, where the male-to-female ratio was twelve to one, both quickly became pregnant.

There are now more than 18,000 single parents in the Army, every one a potential problem in a military that deploys frequently. "As the force shrinks, the degree to which it can tolerate socially inspired programs drops geometrically," says Ben Covington, a retired colonel, and an expert in Army training procedures. That's because, he explains, there are fewer units from which to pull in replacements for "nondeployables."

Despite its problems with integrating the sexes, the Army's way of life still makes more sense to most soldiers at Fort Drum than does the civilian world outside. "You see the news, and it's crazy out there," Staff Sergeant Rookmin Hinojosa told me. From the Army perspective, the civilian world looks mired in bias. Master Sergeant John Wallace, who entered the Army in 1972, reported that at home in rural Sparta, New Jersey, he was amazed to find his high school classmates "still living in the sixties, with the prejudices we had then."

The Army now counsels soldiers to prepare them for a return to the harshness of civilian life. "It's a big shock when they go out in the civilian world and have to pay rent, pay utilities, even think about health insurance," says Charles Hamlin, the transitions-services manager. Nor can they take the Army's ways with them. The civilian world lacks the resources, the power, and the desire to live as the Army does. "The money isn't there in the civilian world to do prevention," says John Dietrich, the family-advocacy program manager at Army Community Services, which reaches into the Army workplace to teach spousal-abuse-awareness classes. Unlike the civilian world, today's Army is a community of volunteers that each year turns away thousands of applicants -- and kicks out members who don't follow its rules. In 1995 alone some 178 soldiers at Fort Drum were dismissed.

More than ever, the Fort Drum soldiers want to stay in the Army, despite their recent difficult expeditions to Somalia and Haiti. After years of trying to re-enlist as many soldiers as possible, Wallace says, "now we're trying to slow them down."


BUT there are indications that the Army's Great Society is beginning to erode. To be sure, there is no panic, no sense of general demoralization. The quality of recruits, as measured by educational attainment and basic mental-capabilities tests, is almost as high as ever. Veteran sergeants, senior officers, and military sociologists nevertheless point to three worrying trends: the character of incoming recruits is changing; boot camp doesn't seem to socialize the newcomers into the Army as well as it did in the 1980s; and the Army itself is experiencing an identity crisis as it continues to search for a post-Cold War mission.

Although the Army's unique combination of hand-holding and hand-slapping has been highly successful, the job of instilling military values has gotten harder of late. The recruits coming into the Army nowadays seem to be bringing more of society's baggage with them and already have altered the atmosphere in parts of the service that tend to be filled with younger soldiers, such as the infantry. These first-term soldiers are more likely than their predecessors to "have one foot still in civilian society," General Burnette says. David Segal, the director of the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization, puts it this way: "American youth culture has changed. If high schools have problems with drugs and discipline, the Army will have those problems."

New soldiers, then, are not being thoroughly indoctrinated in the military way of life -- and part of the responsibility must lie with the Army's basic training. In the past the military used boot camp to cut off recruits from their former ways. But lately boot camp has gone soft.

Sometimes military scuttlebutt can be illuminating even when it is wrong. It is a common and incorrect belief among NCOs these days that recruits back at boot camp are being issued "stress cards" to display when they feel overtaxed by a drill instructor. Paraglide, the weekly newspaper at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, earlier this year carried an article by an anonymous enlisted soldier who was worried by the lackadaisical ways of new soldiers and the coddling these soldiers had received from drill instructors. This four-year veteran complained that the Army was "under-training undisciplined people," and wondered if the fictitious stress cards were to blame for the breakdown in proper training. "Out of five new privates which my unit has in-processed since the beginning of the year, one has been able to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test,"the soldier wrote.

The Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees the boot camps, insists in a statement that "there is no truth to the rumor of stress cards." Basic training "hasn't changed drastically over the last 10 years," it says. "What has changed is the method in which we train. For example, we place emphasis on preserving the dignity of the trainee" -- a necessity for the Army in the all-volunteer era.

It isn't just boot camp that has eased up. Their volunteer soldiers are treated far more tenderly than were the conscripts of the past. Their barracks resemble college dormitories more than the open-bay forty-bunk-beds-and-a-sink barracks of the movies. Soldiers at Fort Drum sleep one or two to a room -- enjoying more privacy than Beetle Bailey ever dreamed of -- surrounded by computers, televisions, microwaves, stereos, and coffee machines. "There's less discipline across the board," one MP told me. "They come through an easier boot camp, and arrive at a duty station where their rooms aren't inspected."

In a military society lax ways can be tightened fairly quickly -- if a sure hand is guiding the institution. Army boot camp, which currently lasts eight weeks and has a male dropout rate of seven percent, could be lengthened and toughened to resemble the eleven grueling weeks required by the Marines, whose boot-camp male dropout rate is nearly twice the Army's -- and who recently decided to make their boot camp still longer, adding a rigorous week of new endurance tests. Attrition rates for first-term soldiers could be kicked up to the levels to which the Marines are accustomed. (Statistically speaking, it is harder to get through four years of the Marines than to get through four years of Harvard.) One problem with this solution is that the much bigger Army needs many more new recruits every year than does the smaller, more selective Marine Corps.

Also, because the Army is going through a post-Cold War identity crisis, it is difficult to impose tough new standards. Arguably for the first time in its history, the Army is having to justify its existence. Nowadays what the U.S. Army should and shouldn't do is not exactly clear. Its murky new missions -- peacekeeping in Bosnia, peacefully invading Haiti, feeding refugees in Rwanda -- may be chipping away at the Army's sense of itself. And that, one thoughtful officer at Fort Drum suggests, may be making it more difficult to socialize new soldiers. "We, the military, don't make as much sense anymore -- we keep taking on different missions, doing different things," this officer says. "If something makes less sense, it's harder to belong to it."

Looming over the Army's version of the Great Society is the expectation that the defense budget will be slashed now that the elections are over. The first thing that is likely to go is the Army's social safety net, which is far more extensive than those provided by the other services. By 1997 or 1998, some Pentagon insiders predict, the defense budget will be placed on the table for cuts, and could be trimmed by as much as $20 billion a year.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington once observed that in peacetime the American people have historically demonstrated two impulses toward their military -- radically shrink it, or transform it to "do good." With the end of the Cold War we appear to be returning to that pattern. There have been several feints toward transformation, from integrating women and homosexuals to using the military's Junior ROTC program to rescue inner-city youths. The coming years may bring out the other impulse -- a radical reduction in the defense budget.

If so, expect great tumult in the military. A few chiefs of staff may resign in protest. Generals will claim that we are returning to the "hollow military" -- that is, the demoralized, undisciplined military of the 1970s. Sergeants will say they are getting out. Privates will publicly contemplate desertion. Analysts will predict soaring rates of drug use and violence in the barracks. And there is a good chance that these grim forecasts will be borne out, especially if America tries, even as its defense budget declines, to maintain a 1.5 million-person active-duty military.

To maintain at least part of today's superior support structure, the military will have to gulp hard and give up some of the altars at which it worships, to borrow the formulation of Carl Builder, an analyst at the Rand Corporation. This likely means forgoing, or at least postponing, some enormously expensive new weaponry, such as the F-22. For the ground pounders it means losing a large number of personnel. Such a grand compromise would be enormously difficult to arrange among the services, and perhaps even harder to sell to a Congress that knows little and cares less about defense. But it might be the way to sustain into the twenty-first century a military that for the first time in the nation's history is the world's best.

Illustration by Glenna Lang


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; The Great Society in Camouflage; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 24 - 38.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture