In the spring of 2021, one of the most contentious issues at Swarthmore College—where I teach—was the institution’s partnership with the Chamberlain Project, which brings retired military officers to campus as visiting professors. (The program is named after Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg and president of Bowdoin College, rather than Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister and appeaser of Hitler.) After a spirited debate, most of the faculty present voted to cut ties with the project. Opponents claimed that the U.S. military is fundamentally anti-progressive, promotes a violent and nationalistic worldview, commits war crimes, has historically persecuted LGBTQ people and other minorities and launched catastrophic invasions of Iraq and other countries. Why would a left-leaning and historically Quaker college like Swarthmore want to partner with the military-industrial complex?
Step outside of institutions like Swarthmore, however, and you’ll find a very different narrative about the U.S. military. Mainstream America lauds soldiers as bastions of virtue and model citizens. Since the 1970s, every major national institution has suffered a steep fall in public trust—except for the military. Even most people on the left trust the military. In one poll in 2021, 62 percent of Democrats said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. Indeed, the Chamberlain Project is funded by a left-wing foundation, the Jennifer and Jonathan Allan Soros Foundation. (He’s the son of that Soros.)
The American view of the military is a sea of veneration (stretching from traditional conservatives through the moderate left) dotted with islands of suspicion (from the more liberal or progressive left). In the end, neither the mainstream nor the progressive vision is compelling because they’re both founded on simplistic and mythical images. The conventional soft-focus Hallmark-card reverence, and the “thank you for your service” marketing opportunities (with camo Budweiser beer bottles specially designed for Memorial Day), ignores the military’s historical injustices and present-day waste. But the progressive left isn’t right, either. In some ways, the military is among the most progressive institutions in America. If the left sees the military more accurately, it can create new opportunities for change. Reformers can leverage widespread trust in the military to forge a broader coalition for social renewal. In turn, progressive engagement with the armed forces could help the military become more diverse, more meritocratic and more effective on the battlefield.
There’s a photo of Swarthmore College in 1944 that shows a typical scene of students chatting on the steps of the main building, Parrish Hall. Except this time, half the group are wearing Navy attire. In the wake of fascist aggression around the world, Swarthmore president John Nason questioned the college’s Quaker tradition: “I feel bound to recommend policy … which will enable us to do positive good rather than merely refrain from evil.” The college became a naval officer training school. The students included 49 Chinese officers who once presented a skit where they appeared as old admirals, decked out with fake white beards and rows of gold braid, and reminisced about the happy days they had spent at Swarthmore. In 1945, the college’s commencement speaker was the secretary of the Navy.
By the 1960s, however, the progressive left had adopted a far more critical take on the military, which is captured by two defining speeches. The first speech was made, ironically, by someone who was far from a leftist—Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. Despite decades of military and political service, Ike’s most famous words came in his farewell address in 1961. He claimed that the fusion of a huge military establishment and a vast arms industry was new in the American experience: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Ike tapped into long-standing American skepticism about standing armies and war. George Washington warned against “overgrown military establishments, which … are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. armed forces had grown to a scale the founders would have thought unimaginable.
The phase “military-industrial complex” came to symbolize a vision of the armed services as an out-of-control blob with an insatiable appetite for resources, which skews America’s economy, infiltrates universities and other institutions of learning, and spurs a state of permanent war. Since Ike cast his farewell warning, the military colossus has grown still further, and the U.S. military now has major bases in 45 countries, as well as smaller facilities in dozens more countries. Defense spending is a carnival of excess and inefficiency, including an estimated $60 billion lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and $100 billion lost in Afghanistan. The U.S. military establishment also provides a constant temptation for presidents to wield the sword and intervene, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya. Threat or no threat, Republican or Democratic president, the United States seems stuck in a forever war.
The second speech was given by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. In Southeast Asia, the U.S. military was a vast engine of destruction, dropping more bombs than in all of World War II and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Army “took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality,” wrote the journalist Michael Herr in his memoir Dispatches. “Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.”
King stood before a congregation of three thousand people gathered at New York City’s Riverside Church and for the first time openly denounced the war. The campaign eroded progressive goals at home. “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.” The war effort was a fantastic lie. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” The war on poverty gave way to war and poverty.
Eisenhower’s and King’s speeches form the twin pillars of the progressive critique of the military, highlighting how the institution has, historically, spurred racial and economic injustice. But these criticisms do not tell the whole story about the military, and can easily encourage an oversimplified narrative.
One problem is ignorance. Today’s progressive intellectuals can be surprisingly ill-informed about the nuts and bolts of how the military is run, how many departments there are, how a corps differs from a division, where the Coast Guard fits in and so on. The same people who will happily reel off every swing state in the presidential election can be incurious about, say, the location of the nearest military base. In some social circles, familiarity with the U.S. military is slightly suspect, like knowing too much about how guns work.
This incuriosity can extend, more importantly, to how progress occurs in the United States. Americans on the left often associate war and the military with chest-thumping chauvinism, the derailment of reform and a shift in resources from ploughshares to swords. Of course, war causes immense destruction and misery, from the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II to the torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. But an inconvenient truth in U.S. history is that war is often the handmaiden of progress. Periods of grave threat to America and military mobilization tend to be periods of liberal advance. The Revolutionary War helped inspire the idea that “all men are created equal,” removed the remnants of British aristocracy from America and hastened the end of slavery in the Northern states. The Civil War led to emancipation throughout the country and caused Congress to create a vast array of government projects and institutions, from a national currency to land-grant universities to the federal bureaus of Internal Revenue and Agriculture. World War I was a powerful impetus to the women’s suffrage movement. In World War II, the federal government grew by tenfold, and Washington raised the top tax rate to 94 percent, regulated wages and prices and introduced rationing. This was the time of the “great compression,” an era of historic economic equality in America. The U.S. campaign in World War II helped to end segregation in the military and energize the wider civil rights movement.
Why do threat and progress tend to align? Danger and national mobilization trigger a shift in thinking from me to we, and a greater concern with the common good. The struggle empowers the federal government and changes attitudes toward taxation. In their book Taxing the Rich, Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage showed that, in major war, higher taxes compensate for the greater sacrifice of the poor, whereas in today’s more limited wars, the compensatory argument has lost its resonance. Threat has an especially powerful impact on conservatives, who will embrace big government and even a transformation of society to defeat the enemy.
Military service is one of the most powerful motors of racial justice. Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith argue that, historically, advances in American racial equality only occurred when the United States mobilized black people in major wars, America emphasized its egalitarian, democratic traditions versus an authoritarian enemy, and domestic protest movements pushed for reform.
A progressive critic might respond that social change occurs in spite of, rather than because of, the U.S. military. In other words, yes, national mobilization and war can benefit progressive causes, but the armed forces still represent a fundamentally illiberal institution that, at best, grudgingly advances reform.
In many respects, however, the U.S. military embodies progressive principles. Former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe Wesley Clark once described the U.S. military (only half-jokingly) as “the purest application of socialism there is.” The network of veterans’ hospitals is the closest thing in America to European-style socialized medicine. The military also operates America’s single largest day-care system, which is widely seen as the gold standard in national care. Military day care is highly subsidized and can cost a third or less of the equivalent service in the civilian world. In 2013, Child Care Aware judged the military’s childcare centers to be better than every state-run system in the country. Meanwhile, the GI Bill of 1944 helped millions of veterans receive home loans and pay for college—opening the door to the ivory tower for many working-class Americans. In 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provided educational benefits to a new generation of service members.
The military is among the most economically equal institutions in America. A top four-star Army general makes around $200,000 per year, or ten times as much as an entry-level Army private, who receives around $20,000 (not including allowances for housing and other expenses). By contrast, in 2020, the CEO of a top 350 firm made an average of $24 million in compensation, or the same as one thousand Army privates or one hundred four-star generals. Supposedly left-wing institutions like universities are often far less equal than the military. Adjunct professors often make just a few thousand dollars per course, whereas college presidents can receive over $1 million a year.
What about women and minorities in the military? The military has become a lot more diverse in recent years, and today it’s one of the most racially integrated institutions in America. Since 1973, when the draft ended, the number of enlisted women rose from 2 percent of the total to 16 percent (and the number of woman officers increased from 8 percent to 19 percent). In 1995, the sociologist Charles Moskos wrote: “The Army is the only institution in America where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks.” Today, the officer corps has a similar racial makeup to the wider U.S. population (although minorities are still underrepresented at the very top). By contrast, in 2020, only four of the Fortune 500 CEOs were black (less than one percent).
Military leaders are increasingly outspoken on racial justice. After George Floyd was murdered in 2020, Kaleth Wright wrote a Twitter thread, addressed in part to his fellow service members: “Who am I? I am a Black man who happens to be Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. … I hope you realize that racism/discrimination/exclusion does not care much about position, titles, or stature.” The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told the House Armed Services Committee that he supported teaching critical race theory to cadets: “I want to understand white rage. And I’m white.”
The military’s historical record on LGBTQ equality is shameful. Until 1994, gay and lesbian people were banned from serving in the military. In 1994, the Clinton administration introduced the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), which allowed gays and lesbians to serve, but only if they concealed their identity—effectively targeting a single group for secrecy and lies. However, the military has tried hard to correct at least some of these wrongs. The Obama administration repealed DADT and announced that trans people could openly serve. Trump banned trans people in the military, but this was done by tweet, caught the Pentagon off guard and was later reversed by Biden. Most service members support diversity and inclusion. In 2010, for example, a Pentagon study interviewed over a hundred thousand service members and found that “69 percent said they had served with a gay service member and 92 percent of those respondents said they were able to work together.” A recent poll showed that two thirds of active-duty service members support trans people serving. The military has changed in line with wider American society. From 1994 to 2010, the percentage of Americans opposed to gays and lesbians openly serving in the military fell from 45 percent to 27 percent.
In a country that faces ever greater income inequality, the military is an engine of social mobility. For one thing, the military is highly meritocratic. In the military, who your parents are, and who you know, probably matters less for promotion than in any comparable institution. There’s no “legacy” system in the military like in many universities, where the children of alumni are given an explicit advantage in applications. Progressive representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tried to ban the military from recruiting in American schools because “children in low-income communities are persistently targeted for enlistment.” But most military personnel come from middle-class neighborhoods rather than the richest or poorest areas.
In a time of alternative facts and fake news, the military is refreshingly sober-minded. Thinking about war has a way of cutting through bullshit. As George Orwell said, “Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.” For instance, the U.S. military is deadly serious about global warming, which a Pentagon report in 2021 called an “existential threat.” In 2022, the Army released an ambitious climate strategy to cut the Army’s emissions in half by 2030 and ensure all non-combat vehicles are electric by 2035—which is far ahead of many other national institutions. This matters not only because the Pentagon’s footprint is huge (it accounts for 56 percent of the federal government’s climate emissions), but also because the military’s voice is seen as credible on the right, where climate skepticism is most deeply rooted.
The U.S. military has also spurred innovations with broad benefits for society. In World War II, the U.S. government, business and the military cooperated to mass produce penicillin, which saved hundreds of millions of lives in the years to follow. The military also helped to invent everything from the Global Positioning System (GPS) to synthetic rubber, from the EpiPen to the internet (which began at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s).
It’s true that the United States has endured an era of failed wars in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere. But the military was not responsible for the decision to intervene in Vietnam or invade Iraq. Soldiers were ordered into combat by elected civilian leaders. Before wars begin, generals are often some of the most dovish officials in Washington and routinely warn about the dangers of seizing the sword.
And yes, the U.S. military is trained to destroy enemies. But sometimes force is the only thing that stops adversaries from extinguishing progressive values. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to demolish democracy in a weaker neighbor shows the necessity of maintaining powerful American armed forces. Without the U.S. military and the NATO alliance, Moscow would likely have targeted the Baltic states and other countries for aggression. Orwell once said of pacifists: “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.”
Furthermore, modern wars are often complex civil wars where U.S. soldiers are tasked with missions far beyond being traditional warriors. From the Balkans to Afghanistan, American service members have created police forces and prison systems, helped refugees, negotiated with warlords and distributed humanitarian relief—a kind of progressive way of war. Meanwhile, in the United States, the military routinely engages in critical infrastructure projects, from setting up mass vaccination sites to tackle COVID, to responding to natural disasters like storms and floods.
Left-wing critics may be suspicious of the military because veterans traditionally lean conservative and vote Republican. But following the election of Trump, the battle lines seem to be changing. Right-wing populists routinely attack the military for being “woke” or part of the “establishment,” and during Trump’s time in office, military personnel shifted their allegiance. In 2016, nearly twice as many service members said they would vote for Trump as opposed to Hillary Clinton (41 percent to 21 percent), but in August 2020, a plurality favored Biden over Trump (41 percent to 37 percent).
Understandably, progressives often see a dollar spent on tanks and bombs as a dollar stolen from the needy, and hope that cuts in defense spending will produce a peace dividend. In practice, however, when U.S. military spending is reduced, the peace dividend goes to the rich in the form of tax cuts and lower regulation. We beat down swords and plough the proceeds into shareholder value. After winning World War I in 1918, for example, the United States demobilized and embraced “normalcy.” In the Age of Gatsby, taxes were cut, inequality rose dramatically and the country became a playground for elites. Similarly, after the Cold War ended, U.S. military spending fell as a percentage of GDP (from around 6 percent in 1988 to just over 3 percent in 1999) but there was no new welfare state. Instead, Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of big government, and the GOP evolved from a limited government party to an anti-government party. The stock market boomed, and in 2012, the income share of the top one percent reached 19.3 percent, the highest level since 1928.
Progressives face a dilemma. In an ideal world, the United States would slash military spending because there are usually more efficient ways to advance social causes. But in the real world of American politics—a world that is unlikely to change any time soon—spending on the military can be an effective way to further progressive goals. At a time of intense polarization when the Republican Party has shifted rightward, much of Biden’s agenda has hit a brick wall. The GOP seems set to win the House in the upcoming midterms, further complicating the picture. But crucially, conservatives will accept expenditure on the military or to compete with global rivals. Therefore, progressives can leverage trust in the military to forge a broad coalition for social change that includes moderates and even some conservatives—for example, pushing for investments in education, science and technology to better compete with China, or boosting services for veterans to help the lower and middle class. The left can ally with the military on issues like climate change to win over skeptics on the right. Progressives can also use the success of military programs like day care as a model for wider national initiatives. For conservatives, the military is a gateway drug to liberalism.
In turn, progressives can create more effective American armed forces. A diverse, meritocratic and green U.S. military represents a huge comparative advantage versus global challengers like China. In his book Divided Armies, Jason Lyall found that countries with more diversity and racial justice tend to win wars. Discrimination erodes trust, fuels grievances and spurs desertion and surrender in wartime. Racism was one reason that the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks caught the United States unawares. “I never thought those little yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan,” said the former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander. Prejudice gets people killed. Shifting the U.S. military to electric vehicles will also make it more effective on the battlefield because the supply lines that provide fuel are a major target for attack (as the Russians discovered in Ukraine).
The relationship between progressive values and the military-industrial complex is, well, complex. In other words, the military contains multitudes. If you’re looking for an organization that can deliver destruction to any target in the world with maximum efficiency, that would be the U.S. military. If you’re looking for an egalitarian institution that has made great strides on diversity and inclusion, that would also be the U.S. military. Every gun purchased is money stolen from the needy. And yet, in U.S. history, as the military moves closer to center stage, America tends to become more equal, and as the military recedes from view, America tends to become less equal. The military is a hierarchical and sometimes brutish institution that has tolerated a shocking amount of sexual assault. And the military is also a community where most people receive high-quality services, where service members generally look out for each other, and where there’s a clear sense of shared purpose.
In the end, despite faculty opposition, Swarthmore College decided to continue participating in the Chamberlain Project as an important educational opportunity. Students on progressive campuses need to understand the military—warts and all—and obviously veterans are a great resource to provide this instruction. It’s true that the mainstream American veneration of the military is simplistic, and as Eisenhower and King showed, the military can be a vast and wasteful establishment that undermines liberal goals. But left-wing critics would benefit from a better understanding of how the military operates.
At a time when Russia has waged war on democratic values, and many Americans have rejected government institutions as the “deep state,” liberals should see the military as more of an ally than an enemy. Meanwhile, the military can view progressive principles of equality, diversity and the rule of law as the ticket to victory in the struggles to come.
This essay is part of our new issue 27 symposium, “What is the military for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.
Art credit: Gerrit A. Beneker. The past is behind us, the future is ahead, 1918. Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.