The military’s ‘astonishingly liberal ethos’

If we were to ask the typical congressional Republican where we could find a governmental model that features universal, government-run health care, emphasizes educational opportunity, offers public housing, and prioritizes curbing income inequality, we’d probably hear a response about Europe.

Nicholas Kristof explains today that the same description happens to apply to the United States military and its “astonishingly liberal” — and effective — ethos.

The military helped lead the way in racial desegregation, and even today it does more to provide equal opportunity to working-class families — especially to blacks — than just about any social program. It has been an escalator of social mobility in American society because it invests in soldiers and gives them skills and opportunities.

The United States armed forces knit together whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics from diverse backgrounds, invests in their education and training, provides them with excellent health care and child care. And it does all this with minimal income gaps: A senior general earns about 10 times what a private makes, while, by my calculation, C.E.O.’s at major companies earn about 300 times as much as those cleaning their offices. That’s right: the military ethos can sound pretty lefty.

“It’s the purest application of socialism there is,” Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, told me. And he was only partly joking.

“It’s a really fair system, and a lot of thought has been put into it, and people respond to it really well,” he added. The country can learn from that sense of mission, he said, from that emphasis on long-term strategic thinking.

This subject has long been an area of interest for us at the Monthly, going back at least to our groundbreaking 2005 cover story on the quality of health care in the socialized, government run VA system. Indeed, I’d note that the Annals of Internal Medicine found the military’s socialized care system is the most effective in the country — and has the lowest costs.

But Kristof’s point goes beyond just universal health care. He describes a system of affordable day care for working parents and top-notch institutions of higher education.

He concluded, “[A]s we as a country grope for new directions in a difficult economic environment, the tendency has been to move toward a corporatist model that sees investments in people as woolly-minded sentimentalism or as unaffordable luxuries. That’s not the only model out there.”

I won’t ask conservatives to denounce the entire social infrastructure of the U.S. military — I’d hate to force the right to confront its cognitive dissonance — but I will note that it’s a fine model for Americans to follow. That it helps disprove so many Republican assumptions is just gravy.