restricted access Stepping Into It: Lessons Learned from Entering the History You're Writing
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Stepping Into It:
Lessons Learned from Entering the History You're Writing

In 2006, I publicly presented my first thoughts on a brand-new research project. A chance encounter with an army recruiter several years before had led me down an intellectual path I had never predicted—writing a history of social welfare and the all-volunteer army in the United States. I had organized the roundtable at the meeting of the American Historical Association to provide other historians and me an opportunity to discuss what it was like for nonmilitary historians to research an institution usually studied only by its own experts. Facing an audience numbering around 150 people, many of whom were military historians, I began with my central premise: social welfare programs provided by the military to its personnel and families have proven fundamental to recruiting and maintaining the late twentieth-century volunteer force; put another way, I ventured, the volunteer army has functioned as a welfare state.

The response from audience members was immediate and overwhelming. Apparently, a not-insignificant number of the military historians in the room had served in the military and at some point received benefits. Over a dozen raised their hands consecutively to ask essentially the same question: "Do you mean to say I'm on welfare?" [End Page 135]

That question was a harbinger. I consistently have received a skeptical reception from audiences whose members are, or were, in the military, or audiences associated with military or defense policy. Two years ago, for example, I presented the research to several audiences composed of active-duty soldiers—mostly army majors and lieutenant colonels. None of the soldiers asked me if I was saying that they were "on welfare." But about one-quarter approached me afterward in private—either in person or on e-mail—with genuine concern about my intentions in describing the connections between military benefits and social welfare: "You would never call it social welfare," one insisted, "unless you wanted to cut our benefits." More recently, a national security policymaker advised me to cease using the term "social welfare" in conjunction with the military. "If civilians have to drive the [Toyota] Corolla version of benefits and military personnel get to drive the Lexus, that's ok with me and with most Americans." As he saw it, no one in Washington wanted to hear military service compared to social welfare programs. To a remarkable degree, defense and military-related audiences have rejected the proposition that the military performs a significant social welfare function and the implication that it could profitably be studied in this way.

As a scholar of social welfare who had written on the history of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), I, too, initially had found the military's role as social welfare provider surprising. Although I knew about veterans' benefits such as Civil War pensions and the G.I. Bill, I had never considered the social welfare implications of the active-duty military—indeed I had thought little about the modern volunteer force at all.

But once I began studying the army, the evidence proved powerful. In 1973, the United States switched from a draft to a volunteer-based armed forces. Although the military used many tools to recruit and retain personnel, creating an array of benefits and social services for soldiers and their families played a decisive role not merely in luring but also in retaining the large numbers of personnel necessary for a volunteer force.1 Starting in the early 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s, the military augmented its existing modest benefits to create a large, comprehensive, and robust network of social support. This was especially true for the army, the largest of the services with the most urgent manpower needs. These benefits are more comprehensive in their coverage of human needs and more generous than any public social welfare programs and nearly all private-employer benefits in the United States. For the nearly ten million [End Page 136] Americans who volunteered for active duty after 1973—and their tens of millions of family members—the all-volunteer force provided medical and dental programs, housing assistance, subsistence payments, commissary and...