A recent study by Foreign Policy-dot-com showed that Senator Bernie Sanders is far and away the most frequent recipient of individual contributions from active duty military members. Donald Trump is not even second; PeeWee Buttigieg is, though he has only 43 percent as many contributions as Sanders. The clown fascist who is the Commander in Chief right now of the United States Armed Forces, ranked third, with less than 35 percent of Sanders’ total.
Why does a 78-year-old self-proclaimed socialist, who never put on a uniform, who has been more critical than any other candidate of US military adventures, and who promises to slash “defense” spending netting the most individual contributions of any candidate, Democrat or Republican, from these troops?
As counter-intuitive as this may seem, and speaking now as someone who retired from the Army after 24.5 years of service — 20 on active duty — as well as being the father of one solider still on active duty, I think I can explain. The explanation has several facets.
Let’s begin with age demographics. Troops are young, and youth is Sanders’ mother lode. The average enlisted GI is 27-years-old, and the average officer is 34-years-old. Enlisted outnumber officers service-wide by around five to one, and the figure 27 for enlisted is an average skewed by the minority of enlisted who reenlist until they retire.
One of the principle reasons people join the military — and put up with its incessant bullshit — is plain household economic calculation. The pay is decent and the bennies superlative (comparatively speaking, though even these are being eroded by capital’s predations).
That said, the majority of those who enlist the first time don’t reenlist. That means they are looking beyond their little three- or four-year stint, which is seen as a bridge to other destinations. The economic distress that Sanders consistently points to in his campaign not only drives many people into the armed forces, it enters into calculations about post-military life. Rich people don’t enlist. Working class people do. Someone who wants to leave the military right now has to factor in the free medical care for the service member and family which will be lost upon separation, for example. Medicare For All has traction there. A federal jobs program has traction.
As to slashing military budgets — which Sanders has stated he will do — active duty military personnel know damn well how much waste, fraud, and abuse there is in the system. They know how much the DOD pays out to mercenaries. They know how much is shelled out on high-dollar weapons systems (many are military Keynesian schemes that produce shit). They’ve seen the waste, fraud, and abuse first hand . . . again and again.
The armed forces are multiracial, mirroring Sanders’ multiracial working class coalition. Four out of ten members of the active duty armed forces are non-white. That’s not a Trump demographic, and what the raw numbers on race-ethnicity represent doesn’t account for the fact that interracial marriage is far more common in the military than it is among US civilians.
Those marriages, however, like all marriages in the military, are fraught with difficulty, because the job always comes first, there are demands for secrecy, there are serial displacements through reassignment (I had more than forty addresses in twenty years), and the daily bureaucratic grind of military life keeps the member on active duty pissed off most of the time. I have personally heard members say that they support Sanders because they hope he’ll do force reductions and offer early retirements.
Add to that an unending series of bullshit deployments. Every troop who’s been out there for a few years knows that Iraq and Afghanistan (and for Special Ops, Syria) are colossal and vicious wastes of lives, health, money, energy, and time. In the past three years, troops have also been subject to idiotic vanity whim-deployments, e.g., Trump dispatching troops to the Mexico-US border. Troops, with the exception of those who are glory-seekers and thrill-killers on a masculinity-quest, are way okay with Sanders’ promise to dramatically scale back the US’s foreign military presence.
For those few who follow veterans affairs, Sanders, as the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was the gadfly who forced right-wing penny-pinchers to spend billions more than they wanted to fix massive problems in the VA, and who is known among veterans’ advocates as a champion.
Finally, there is “socialism.” In this post-Cold War (for the Democratic establishment, the neo-Cold War) period, “socialism” is not a scary word anymore; and people in the military are the beneficiaries of a(n admittedly perverse) form of socialism. Military personnel are entitled to the essentials: decent pay, affordable housing, food, medical care, and emergency services. More than that, posts and bases have child care, schools, on-site colleges and university programs, and recreational facilities. Of everything about being on active duty, these socialistically-administered bennies are the most desirable characteristics of military life.
Postscript: When Trump pulled his childish stunt in Norther Syria, it ignited a seething anger among many of the thousands of US troops who’d worked alongside the Kurds. They’ll not soon forget that these people with whom many had formed friendships were left to the tender mercies of Erdoğan ’s genocidal armed forces, and it ignited a seething anger among many of those troops.
These are some of the factors underwriting Sanders’ support in the military, and this retired veteran’s support in particular.