If Inequality Is Our Problem, Military Service is the Answer

Published in the LA Times – January 2015

A Student at my alma mater, Brandeis University, recently asked me to speak to her school group about my post-college experiences, specifically my time studying in China and Germany and now at Harvard University. There was one major problem with this request: I’d graduated five years ago, and she skipped most of what has defined my adult life — the four years I served in the Marine Corps.

If more of society’s privileged served in uniform, we would foster leaders from more spheres … who know firsthand the rewards of caring for their fellow citizens.

A large swath of America shares this student’s disinterest in military service. Among elected officials, prior military service is at 20%, an all-time low. Fewer than 1% of these leaders have children who grew up to don a uniform. Similarly, fewer than 1% of Ivy League graduates choose to serve, according to the book “AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service — and How It Hurts Our Country.”

Many leaders of tomorrow will be found among the children of our elected officials and Ivy League alumni. Yet we, as a society, expect so few of them to join the military. Instead, those most likely to serve are the children of those who have already done so. Inadvertently, America is forging a military caste, separate from the larger electorate and distinct from its future leaders. This growing civil-military gap is both a byproduct of and contributor to increased social stratification. But the divide in military service is only one of many symptoms.

Social and economic inequality in America has risen to heights not seen in almost a century. Economic gains are largely captured by the wealthy, while the middle class stagnates and economic mobility dwindles, economist Thomas Piketty writes in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” The Pew Research Center has shown that American communities are increasingly segregated not only by wealth but also by political affiliation.

With decreased exposure to opposing political views, tolerance shrinks. A once fluid and freewheeling American society is petrifying as opportunity evaporates and people exist in political echo chambers of their own creation. While the government searches for policies to staunch the middle class’ decline and to rebuild trust among Americans, the solution may be simpler: foster and incentivize increased military service.

The military is perhaps America’s last bastion of social and economic equality. The salaries of those at the top are much closer to those at the bottom, relative to the corporate world. Senior officers live on the same bases — in the same communities — as junior enlisted personnel, and their children go to school together.

Military values are bound up in day-to-day customs such as “officers eat last,” or the lowest-rank is cared for first and the highest rank last. America needs leaders who embody ideals like these. If more of society’s privileged served in uniform, we would foster leaders from more spheres — military, business, government — who know firsthand the rewards of caring for their fellow citizens. Because of past military service, more corporate executives would perhaps be duty-bound not only to shareholders but to their employees.

Widespread military service also could help rebuild trust among Americans. The military provides constant and intense exposure to diverse backgrounds. Where else do people work with, live among and mortally depend on such a varied community on a 24/7 basis? The shared hardships forge unbreakable bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood. Those perspectives follow veterans throughout life, humanizing people with opposing views.

Historically, the military has served as a vehicle for social change. In the aftermath of World War II, the GI Bill helped create America’s middle class. The integration of African Americans into the military played a role in solidifying and extending the gains of the civil rights movement. And 2011’s formal repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” probably will be seen as a watershed moment for the acceptance of the LGBT community.

With an all-volunteer military here to stay, the time has come for society’s most privileged to realize that the burden of service can no longer fall on some unknown “other.” The burden lies on each of us, and on our children and grandchildren. Our military has long served as our great equalizer and our melting pot.

Let us turn to it again.

Benjamin Luxenberg, who served in the Marines from 2009 to 2013, is pursuing an MBA and a master’s in public policy at Harvard University

Volunteering for the All-American Military

Published in the Wall Street Journal – July 2014

A few months ago when I last attended synagogue, an older woman approached me, having overheard that I had served in the military. Speaking in Hebrew, she said, “Kol ha’kavod,” or “All the respect”—akin to “well done.” Actually, she said a bit more, but because—like many young American Jews— I don’t speak Hebrew, I didn’t understand what she was saying. I stared at her blankly and finally mustered “Ani lo m’daber evrit,” or “I don’t speak Hebrew.” She responded incredulously, asking, “How did you serve in the IDF”—the Israel Defense Forces—”without knowing Hebrew?” My answer was simple: I didn’t—I served in the United States Marine Corps.

She thanked me again for my service but went away still a little perplexed. For as long as I can remember, American Jews have revered those who volunteered for the IDF. I also admire them, having founded a pro-Israel club in the 2000s in a suburban Philadelphia high school that coincidentally was the same one attended by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. I went on to Brandeis University, which was founded by and for Jews in response to discrimination by elite American institutions. It was understood that to serve in the IDF was to fight for all Jews, in Israel and the diaspora, and in some sense for Jews who lived and died—often slaughtered simply for their Jewishness—before Israel’s founding.

It was not unusual to hear of American Jews choosing to serve in Israel, where military service is mandatory and the country is under constant threat. It was much less common to hear of them joining the all-volunteer U.S. military. That is largely how Jews serving in the U.S. military today are considered by fellow Jews: as anomalies.

The attitude doesn’t suggest any diminished respect toward those who serve in the U.S. It is more indicative of wonder or a slight bewilderment. I can’t imagine asking or anyone else asking a young American Jew who volunteered for the IDF why he joined. The answer would be obvious—Israel needs defenders. In the U.S., where most Americans go through their daily lives rarely encountering a member of the military, much less a Jewish one, I was often asked why I had joined.

The answer was easy: because I am an American. Yes, Israel will always hold a special place in my heart. Israel is the embodied dream of a people—my people—exiled and downtrodden for 2,000 years, returning to their homeland, a unique historical event. But in the grand sweep of history, it is America and the American dream for which I hold the most awe.

America is a country for all peoples. Like the identities of all other modern nation-states, Israel is one based on an ethnic, cultural or religious affinity; it is a state for a specific people with an exclusive identity. In that regard it is not dissimilar to what the Palestinians desire in a Palestine, the Kurds in a Kurdistan, or what the Slovaks desired in a Slovakia. It is similar to the ethno-nationalism that undergirds the founding of modern European nation-states.

Namely, this means the ancestry, cultural attitudes and shared history attendant to what it means to be English, French or Greek—as borne out by the recent electoral success of rightist parties in those countries and the difficulties Muslim immigrants have experienced in assimilating. It is the same understanding that lies behind the historical enmity between, say, China and Japan. They are all states for specific peoples.

That is where America differs. American identity is heterogeneous. America is for everyone in general and no one in particular. There may be hyphenated groups—Jewish-American, African-American, Chinese-American, Irish-American—but the “Americanness” of any group is not in doubt. There are legal means for anyone from anywhere to obtain American citizenship and to be accepted as American citizens both by the government in its official capacity and by native-born Americans in their unofficial one. You may be asked about where your family is from originally, but that is not intended to cheapen your U.S. citizenship—the assumption is that in the land of immigrants, nearly everyone has roots somewhere else.

Yes, American history has the stain of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but just as all people are sinners, so are all nations. As long as we continue to struggle to live up to our founding ideals, just as sinners continually strive for righteousness, it is that ennobling ideal that sets America apart. It is an ideal that young Americans of every religious and ethnic background should consider fighting for.

Mr. Luxenberg, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps (2009-13), is in a masters-degree program at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Women Warriors Need Their Own Combat Units

Published in the Wall Street Journal – May 2013

Writing about the Amazons in “The Iliad,” Homer refers to them as antianeirai or “those who fight like men.” Legend says they were a tribe of fierce warrior-women who struck fear into the hearts of their enemies and who would not suffer men in their company, let alone trust men to fight alongside them. Is it time for the U.S. military to test that strategy?

As American forces were opened to women in recent decades, a line was drawn in 1994 with a rule barring them from infantry and other combat units. In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta formally lifted the rule. He gave the military services three years to seek exemptions if they wanted to keep some positions off-limits to women.

The military has begun researching how best to integrate women into these units. And as with any new initiative, there have been some hiccups. In late March, two female Marine Corps officers failed to complete the Corps’ Infantry Officer Course, as did the two pioneering women who last year became the first to attempt the grueling course.

While the branches research the initiative further, many male soldiers and Marines remain vehemently opposed to the integration. Many cite physical and physiological challenges that come with serving in the infantry. Carrying full combat loads, which often exceed 100 pounds, for 16 hours a day for an entire deployment wears down the hardiest men and will do worse damage to women.

Others believe that the presence of women will cause a rift in the traditional male bonding of combat-arms units and damage the cohesion that is a key element in the success of any battlefield unit. Many worry that men will have to pick up the slack if women cannot perform at the same level—or that floundering women will endanger themselves and their comrades.

Yet the tides of history seem to be turning against these sentiments and the questions of whether women can handle sustained combat operations. The issue is often framed now in terms of patriotism and human rights.

The service branches say that endurance and other standards won’t be lowered, and perhaps there will be special training programs to prepare women who wish to become infantry. Yet there may be a better way to bring them into combat units—one that could serve as a test and steppingstone toward tighter integration.

In professional sports and in the Olympics, men and women perform separately. In boot camp and officer-candidate schools—the entry points for all service members—men and women also are separated, with placement into different platoons within the same company.

So why not mirror what society at large and the military already do: put men and women into their own teams, with female infantry platoons on one side and male platoons on the other?

An all-female infantry platoon would not suffer from many of the problems that detractors cite, such as a lack of unit cohesion caused by mixing the sexes. Like the Amazons, female-only platoons could build their own brand of cohesion, which may prove superior to the men’s. The arrangement would also avoid putting male soldiers in the position of feeling obliged to compensate for an underperforming female.

While the all-female platoon solution would not compensate for physical and physiological differences and how they affect performance on the battlefield, it would be a good way to test that line of argument. If the female platoons showed that their combat performance equaled that of men, then the separated-platoon arrangement would merely be a step on the road to full integration. If the female platoons underperformed, then the idea of women in the infantry might need to be scrapped or the women-only platoons would be the final compromise, with their deployment based on battlefield needs.

A staged approach rather than rushing headlong into full integration in combat units may be the best approach. Once the right (or privilege) to serve in any military specialty is passed to women, it would be virtually impossible to change course, no matter the consequence or effect on combat effectiveness.

But who knows? Women running toward the sound of the guns may very well prefer fighting alongside other women—and their effectiveness may surprise even the most pessimistic. The Amazons certainly made an impression on the Greeks.

Mr. Luxenberg is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. His views do not represent those of the Defense Department or the Corps.

A Marine Volunteers – For a Paycut

Published in the Wall Street Journal – March 2013

America owes its veterans. For the past 12 years, they have toiled and sacrificed in Iraq, Afghanistan and in so many other places around the world. Thousands made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives, and thousands more were wounded. Even those without serious injuries gave their blood, sweat and tears. When service members take their oath, they are writing a blank check to the U.S. government, to the American people, for their lives. When and how America chooses to cash that check is beyond their control.

Nor should the untold sacrifices of military families be forgotten. How many husbands weren’t with their wives during the birth of their child? How many kids’ birthdays or Little League games were missed? How many childhoods were missed almost entirely? Twelve years of war does that. The time cannot be made up. It is gone forever. America cannot pay veterans enough to compensate for those kinds of losses.

America has asked—or, more truthfully, demanded—so much from its veterans. And yet the country must now ask for more. Not for more of those things that really matter, the things that make life worth living. What the country seeks is more material in nature: basically, money.

The current budget sequestration plan protects military pay at the expense of all other costs in the Defense Department. Because our pay (I am a Marine) has become sacrosanct, even deeper cuts in the rest of the Defense Department budget will have to be made—cuts that will endanger us now and in the future. It isn’t just a matter of national security but also of personal security. As the Pentagon reduces funds for equipment, troops may begin to wonder: Are we going to be forced to surrender body armor to keep our pay? A more reasonable balance needs to be found. Even the currently envisioned cuts won’t necessarily be enough to stave off future ones, especially if military pay continues to be off-limits.

National security shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of military pay. But cuts wouldn’t have to start with basic paychecks. They could begin by aligning special pay across the branches. For example, airmen who serve aboard Navy ships earn “hardship pay” while the sailors aboard those same ships don’t. Serving aboard ship isn’t reasonably more difficult for an airman than it is for a sailor or Marine. Lodging and food allowances for those temporarily assigned to certain units can be reduced; there is no need for service members who are on temporary active duty in Bahrain—sometimes for as long as a year—to receive $142 per day on top of all the other moneys and forms of compensation. And there are, no doubt, dozens of other small fixes that can make some difference to the military budget.

But, ultimately, even base pay may have to be put on the line. Congress should cut only what feels justified in the name of national security. The cuts should be done the American way: Those who most need the money should be affected the least. Don’t start with cuts for everyone across the board. In the Marine Corps, we have a saying: “Officers eat last.” We officers exist to serve the enlisted Marines under our command. Start with us. But don’t start with those of us who are married and on whom spouses depend. Don’t start with those of us who have children. Start with those of us who don’t. Start with the single, childless officers. Start with me.

Yet active-duty service members and veterans cannot endure these sacrifices alone. For the past dozen years, most Americans have barely felt the impact of the wars and deployments abroad. To steer the government and the U.S. economy—the greatest pillar of national security—back on track, let everyone bear some of the burden. Let civilian officials take a pay cut too. Let older Americans, including my own grandparents—Nani, Papa Bernie, Grandma Dorothy—accept some cuts in Medicare. The middle-aged (that means you, Mom and Dad) must accept some cuts to Social Security benefits upon retirement. And to my civilian friends (Greg, Preethi, David, Anna), you must accept raising the Social Security retirement age, whether it is a mere two years or a painful 10.

It is long past time for all Americans to share in the sacrifice. Nothing should be off the table. Maintaining present comforts at the expense of future security endangers everything that veterans and their families have fought for. Don’t tell them that they fought in vain. That is what America owes.

Mr. Luxenberg is a first lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. His views do not represent those of the Defense Department or USMC.