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The Risks to Rent-a-Soldiers


Owning stuff is hard, and you have to fix it if it breaks. Renting is easier.

The U.S. Army currently has about 520,000 soldiers on active duty, with near-term fiscal constraints that will bring that number closer to 490,000, according to Budget plans for 2015 would reduce active ranks to about 440,000. If those future cuts are made as planned, they’ll eventually leave the army with twenty-eight brigade combat teams, down from the forty-five of recent years.

But a smaller army doesn’t mean more peace; it just suggests a different business model.

In 2007, when the Department of Defense created AFRICOM, it made the unprecedented decision not to assign old-fashioned entities like soldiers or marines to its support. Instead, the American imperial constabulary in Africa is leased—like my Passat—with routine maintenance included. AFRICOM contracts for personnel, picking up boots on the ground from private corporations. And there will likely be more renting of soldiers in future American military operations, too.

Smart business move! War costs money, even when it’s over. Injured military personnel keep expecting things like, I don’t know, medical care. Stuff like that. And the Veterans Administration we currently have is unable to keep up with the demand, sometimes even cutting service backlogs by deleting their records of unmet requests for service.

In 2012, Jimmy I. Wise, a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, wrote about the disparity between benefits that soldiers get and those that contractors get. Time magazine’s David Isenberg wrote about the paper last year:

He found that while contractors’ medical insurance benefits were equitable to U.S. military personnel, real inequity existed between contractor disability compensation insurance and the military personnel’s benefits, and real inequity existed between a contractor’s death benefits and the U.S. military personnel’s death benefits.

Speaking as a Navy veteran, and having witnessed my share of horror stories when it comes to applying for and receiving benefits one is entitled to, I was initially reluctant to think anything could be worse than dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs. But after reading Wise’s paper it seems that the private sector rose to the challenge.

The U.S. military must know that it’s easier, in the long run, to reduce the number of people who will be formally categorized as “veterans” of future wars. Maybe “leasing” something versus “owning” it is the wrong metaphor. Disposable cups—that’s more like it.