Last year, we reported that the Department of Defense (DOD) had recorded “accounting adjustments” for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019 amounting to $94.7 trillion.
In fiscal year 2019, for instance, the DOD reported $35 trillion in accounting adjustments. That was nearly 50 times the size of its actual budget. Indeed, $35 trillion exceeds America’s entire GDP for 2019 by more than 50%.
We don’t know where this $94.7 trillion went. But one place it didn’t go was to maintain the barracks the DOD requires many service personnel to live in.
A report issued last month from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that many of the hundreds of thousands of service members who live in military barracks endure chronic health and safety risks like broken plumbing, inoperable air conditioning, and uncontrolled mold.
Here’s a (nauseating) photo from the report showing sewage overflowing in a barracks bathroom:
For example, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is considered to be the DOD’s pre-eminent hospital. Over the years, it’s cared for presidents, members of Congress and the Supreme Court, and other national leaders.
But conditions at the barracks where many of the military personnel who work at the hospital live are nothing short of abysmal. Many soldiers have endured years of privation without hot water, air conditioners, working refrigerators, or even doors that lock.
Nor are these conditions new. The GAO report states that, “concerns about poor living conditions and how DOD is managing the barracks go back decades. And the DOD admits to a backlog of at least $137 billion in deferred maintenance costs. Rather than pay for the maintenance required for its barracks, facility sustainment funding is focused primarily on what the DOD calls “mission-critical facilities.”
And while there’s a proposal for the Army to spend more than $4 billion into barracks maintenance and repair for the remainder of the 2020s, there’s little assurance that Congress will appropriate the necessary funds. It would be nice if a small chunk of the missing $94.7 trillion could be “found” and used for barracks renovation, but that seems highly unlikely.
Not surprisingly, conditions in barracks risk undermining the military’s readiness and morale. In a 2022 Reddit post, “starvingsailor,” who has since been banned on the platform, wrote:
I understand the “you’re in the military, get over it” mentality but … I don’t think a warm shower is a whole lot to ask for at a shore command that calls itself “the flagship of naval medicine.”
Numerous military personnel the GAO interviewed declared their intention not to continue serving in the military given the substandard living conditions they had to endure. And this is hardly an isolated problem: all enlisted service members start their military careers living in barracks – nearly 9,000 such facilities in all.
Meanwhile, the military in 2022 had one of the worst recruiting years since the draft was suspended in 1973 in favor of an all-volunteer force. The Army missed its recruiting goal by 25%, recruiting only 45,000 soldiers, 15,000 shy of its goal. While the Air Force and Navy barely met their recruiting goals in 2022, they anticipate missing them in 2023.
Not surprisingly, the dearth of people volunteering to serve in the military has become a potent political issue. Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis blames “wokeness” in the armed services for failure to meet recruiting goals. Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal believe that a medical screening system could be frustrating recruitment. But according to Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, quality of life in the military is the deciding factor.
We’re far from military experts, but it seems to us that the longstanding crisis in living conditions at military barracks, spread through social media, might well affect recruitment and re-enlistment. But unless and until DOD fixes the problem, we don’t anticipate things getting any better.
One possible “solution” would be to reinstitute the draft, in which young American men (and possibly women) between the ages of 18 and 26 would be involuntarily conscripted into the military. This was the case made in a recent article published in the US Army War College Quarterly based on the high casualty levels in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
It suggests that if the United States ever again was to engage in a large-scale conflict, it could expect to suffer 3,600 casualties daily and require 800 replacement soldiers, each day. In turn, this would force a “reconceptualization of the 1970s and 1980s volunteer force and a move toward partial conscription.”
That would be a huge mistake. There is no compelling national interest for the United States to become involved in a war outside its own borders. And given our geographical isolation from both Europe and Asia, it seems highly unlikely any potential adversary could mount a successful invasion.
But if our minders decide to involve America in outright war with a formidable adversary like Russia or China, the all-volunteer military could be transformed into a conscripted one simply almost overnight.
The state orders a person to leave his life and report to a military installation, where he is required to serve the state, specifically the military, and obey its orders. The draftee has no effective choice. If he refuses, he goes to jail. There is no way to reconcile conscription with the principles of a free society.
A better solution would be to reduce the size of our military. Our founding fathers warned of a standing army – a permanent military force maintained in times of peace and war – as a pernicious threat to liberty. George Mason, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, described his fears of a standing military army turning against ordinary citizens:
When, against a regular and disciplined army, yeomanry [farmers] are the only defence — yeomanry, unskilful and unarmed, — what chance is there for preserving freedom?
What’s more, once a standing military is established, it creates a bureaucracy which, as all bureaucracies, seeks to advance its agenda. In this case, it creates a special-interest group – an alliance of generals and weapons manufacturers – with a vested interest in fomenting war.
This is the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of more than 60 years ago. He spoke of “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” and “destroying from within that which you are trying to protect from without.” A sterling example of this phenomenon in our time is the increased militarization of the equipment and tactics used by civilian police forces.
The best solution to the military recruiting crisis is to substantially cut the size of America’s enormous standing military forces – 1.3 million men and women in all. Demilitarization would also gradually reduce the threat that a standing military and police militarization poses to civilians. And some of the hundreds of billions of dollars saved each year could be spent on improving conditions in military barracks for the much smaller force required to actually defend American borders.
That would be a far better outcome than forcing millions of young Americans into involuntary servitude.