The Military Isn’t Preparing People for Private-Sector Success

And that’s a good thing: Thriving in business requires a shallow, materialist outlook that is out of place in the armed forces.

Gunnar Pippel / STILLFX / Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Those considered successful in America seem, at least superficially, to cover a fairly broad spectrum: the business entrepreneur, the pop star, the professional athlete, perhaps a surgeon. Yet while their success derives from very different activities, one feature they all share in common is wealth. To be successful in America means to be rich, and much of our culture is monomaniacally focused on getting rich.

There is one major subset of Americans for whom this is not the case, who have not put making money at the center of their lives: service members. And it shows: Many retired service members are not doing well once they enter the private sector. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said at a Brookings Institution event last month, “If you go into the military at age 18—versus an identical person who stays in the private sector and takes a private sector job—10 years later, if you leave the military, your skills and wages are probably not going to be as quite as high on average as the private-sector person.” Living as we do in a climate where to say anything that could be vaguely construed as “anti-troop” is anathema, his remarks were quite controversial.

To give some context, the subject of the Brookings event was “defense spending and its economic impacts,” and Bernanke’s comments were referring to the cost of maintaining a 1.4 million-person military—which he believes could be offset by better training service members to enter the workforce once they leave the military. In making his case, Bernanke specifically referenced the average unemployment rate of 7 percent for vets returning to the private sector, higher than the national average of 5.3 percent. If veterans were better able to contribute to the general economy once they separated from the service, America could more efficiently maintain a large military. The case that Bernanke is making might seem cold and removed, but it’s a characteristically unsentimental argument coming as it does from one of the nation’s top economists.

Predictably, Bernanke’s statements miffed some veterans groups. Fred Wellman, 22-year Army veteran and CEO of veteran-advocacy group ScoutComms commented to Foreign Policy, “I am not sure where Mr. Bernanke got his information, but the current numbers just don’t reflect saying military service does not help you succeed in the private sector. The most current surveys show that veterans are far more likely to be employed than non-veterans and earn higher median incomes in those jobs.” Robert L. Gordon III, retired Army colonel and current head of the veteran-advocacy group Got Your 6, wrote in the Huffington Post that Bernanke’s statements add to the misconception that veterans are “broken heroes,” a myth belied by the fact that veterans “vote, volunteer, and help [their] neighbors” at higher rates than their civilian counterparts. Gordon also pointed out that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among all veterans over 18 is actually lower than the national average. (The discrepancy here is explained by the fact that Bernanke's numbers measure unemployment for post-9/11 veterans, whereas Wellman and Gordon are referring to all veterans, including those who served in Vietnam and World War II.)

The back and forth with facts and figures is interesting, but one can’t help but feel that something fundamental is missing from the conversation. The military isn’t solely a jobs program, or a jobs-training program, and for many it is that disconnect from the marketplace that is the strength and appeal of military service.

This was certainly the case in my own experience enlisting as an infantry soldier in the Army, though it wasn’t until after I separated from the military that I really was able to fully suss out the reasons I had joined. When friends would ask why I joined, I would usually struggle to come up with a response that they would understand, whether it was a family history of service or the GI Bill, before eventually asking a question of my own: “Would your coworkers die for you?” Intense, to be sure, but the question illuminates the different mental and moral frameworks we were operating under. I joined the infantry specifically because I wanted a role in the military that didn’t have a civilian counterpart (unlike, say, becoming a medic or cook) precisely because I wanted to experience the intensity of purpose and camaraderie that simply doesn’t exist within the framework of our civilian economy. I wanted to serve my country, but I wanted to serve it in a way that placed me outside the rationale of neoliberal consumerism.

CUNY Anthropology and Geography professor David Harvey, perhaps the preeminent scholar of neoliberalism today, describes our current socio-economic system in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism as “in short, the financialization of everything.” Under the pretext of advancing the cause of individual freedom, market forces spread and commodify—or transform goods and services into salable items—in an effort to expand the market. The concrete examples that spring to mind are for-profit prisons, hospitals, and schools. But the process is sophisticated enough to incorporate all sorts of things not traditionally adorned with “For Sale” signs. Companies have attempted to patent—and in some cases succeeded—things like seeds, human genetic material, and the human genome in the last decade. Product placement in movies, and its Fourth Estate equivalent of sponsored content, has blurred the line between art and commercials, journalism and advertising. Even our relationships, mitigated through the marketized filter of dating aps or online services, have been commodified. As Michael J. Sandel wrote for The Atlantic in 2012, “Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.”

There aren’t many opportunities to escape the dictates and demands of the neoliberalism. And that’s one of the problems it presents: homogeneity. It’s an ironic diagnosis for an economic and social system nominally predicated upon servicing peoples’ desires. Marketization can give you anything you want, as long as it has a price tag. The expectation that all things must be brought to market, or else cease to exist, was described by David Harvey as neoliberalism’s valuing market exchange as “an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs.”

Psychologist Paul Verhaeghe describes the qualities of one adrift in a totally transactional society as being superficial, manipulative, risk-averse, and childish. He writes, “This description is, of course, a caricature taken to extremes. Nevertheless, the financial crisis illustrated at a macro-social level (for example, in the conflicts between eurozone countries) what a neoliberal meritocracy does to people. Solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment to the enterprise or organisation.” All relations become transactional, and the atomized self a nodule in an unbroken loop of production and consumption.

In the pursuit of such a dry, almost infantilizing, cultivation of banal desire, certain human needs get swept under the rug. To imagine what might be missing from the neoliberal mindset, it might help to harken back to a pre-modern description of the self and its needs. In his Republic, Plato divides the conscious self into three parts: logistikon, thumos, and epithymetikon. These are usually translated as something like the logical, the spirited, and the appetitive. To describe the conscious self, Plato uses the metaphor of a chariot pulled by the stallions of spirit and appetite, but controlled under the reign of logic. Epithymetikon, or the appetites, Plato associated with carnal pleasures and moneymaking. Thumos, the spirit, is more akin to a powerful willfulness, a brute drive, a vital energy, or even a rage, grief, or horror. Philosopher Allan Bloom called it “the central natural passion in men’s souls.” Without thumos and logic working in tandem, Plato warned, the self would be completely lost to the appetites. Critics of neoliberalism often make the charge that it’s sort of an institutionalized avarice (who can forget Gordon Gekko’s infamous “greed is good” speech in the movie Wall Street?), that Plato’s chariot is being pulled by the single horse of the appetites while the higher spirit languishes. When someone says that they joined the military out of patriotic duty, it’s an indication that they’re feeding their thumos, the strength of will that allows them to desire experiences outside of their own immediate self-interest. They’re becoming, at least in Platonic terms, more completely human.

Simply put, military service is one of the few remaining social experiences one can have where the goal isn’t to maximize shareholder value. This isn’t to say that everyone in civilian occupations is driven solely by rational economic expediency—just that the military operates under an entirely different set of assumptions. Instead of being in unspoken competition with your coworkers, you’re expected to be willing to lay down your life for them. “Loyalty” is usually listed first among the Army Values, and is a far cry from the legalistic obligations of the marketplace. As the French mystical philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “professional loyalty becomes merely a form of commercial honesty…But honesty is not the same as loyalty. A wide distance separates these two virtues.” Values like loyalty and honor are codified within a formal hierarchical military structure and celebrated in ceremony. The night that I graduated Advanced Individual Training to become an infantryman was capped with the crucible of a long grueling road march and a torch-lit ceremony in which my drill sergeant somberly explained that he would lay down his life for me. A bit different from your average promotion office party, and maybe too intense for some. But in exchange for agreeing to literally give your all, you’re able to achieve profoundly deep connections to the people around you. And your basic material needs are taken care of: food, clothing, medical care, and shelter. Veterans only become homeless after they return home.

In Bernanke’s appearance at the Brookings event, he specifically accused the Army of advertising, for making it appear as if there are direct professional benefits for having served when he doubts that there are. And maybe he’s right. Maybe instead of communicating within the lexicon of market values and recruiting by appealing to self-interest or later professional success, the military should go in the completely opposite direction and appeal to the starved thumos. Join the Army: Money only distracts you from Honor.