Privatizing the All Volunteer Army: Gender and Families in the 1990s and Early Aughts

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[Editor’s note: This is the final installment in ToM’s three part series on social welfare policies in the All Volunteer Army using Jennifer Mittelstadt’s new book The Rise of the Military Welfare State as our guide. Parts I and II can be read here and here.]

In his assessment of post-1945 army housing, the late military historian William C. Baldwin pointed out that programs aimed at increasing housing stock for military households often followed trends in private sector. So when privatization and deregulation emerged as central themes in government run housing programs and elsewhere in the 1990s, the military soon followed.

For our purposes and because we will return to it later, let’s start with housing. Passed in 1992 but gaining momentum in the late ‘90s, the HOPE VI housing program encouraged public private partnerships in the construction of public housing and largely removed the government from the management of the new mixed-income units that eventually replaced public housing across the United States. A wealth of literature exists on the subject; Lawrence Vale, Jason Hackwork, and Susan Popkin are just a few of many insightful analysts that have examined the program’s creation, enactment, and impact. However, fewer have explored how HOPE VI reforms affected other government housing programs, notably the military’s.

In fact, by 1996, the armed forces had followed suit, passing the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI); like HOPE VI, the program attempted to save money while placing the construction and management of military family housing in the hands of private contractors. The MHPI grew out of conversations between the Army Housing Division (AHD) and Army Corps of Engineers to address shortages in family and unaccompanied service personnel housing. Clearly, the passage of HOPE VI influenced these discussions and the policy that arose out of it four years later.

Without getting into a debate about the merits of HOPE VI or MHPI, the relationship between the two further illustrates one of the central themes of Mittelstadt’s book: the military has been shaped by external forces and trends while also being used to shape those same developments. Through the creation of the Residential Communities Initiative (RCI, also to be discussed later), 87,000 homes had been constructed or renovated at 44 installations across the army over ten years. In the continental U.S., it would make up 90 percent of all official army housing.[1]

Housing serves as only one example of this move toward privatization and encapsulates many of Mittelstadt’s larger arguments regarding the policies and development of the AVF. This privatization intersected with a military consisting of more and more families and female service personnel, thereby raising questions about the perception of dependency in an era of diminished budgets and a military drawing down. Obviously, these factors combined to further complicate policies and opinions regarding the army. The outbreak of the Iraq War in 1991 provides a useful departure point from which to delve into the Rutgers professor’s thoughts on the military’s last two decades.

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Desert Storm, Military Families, and Gender

The successful prosecution of the first Iraq/Gulf War stood as symbol of the AVF’s success but in a decade dedicated to welfare reform, free markets, and privatization, it remained, for some observers, troublingly attached to the kind of social welfare programs that had come to be seen as wasteful and damaging by some. “Beneath the concerns about soldiers’ and families’ reliance on the army lay worries that reprised the dark days of the 1970s when the army was threated by the close association with welfare and the attendant feminization of the force,” writes Mittelstadt.[2] Such concerns coincided with President Clinton’s promise to reform welfare, as the army’s “top family researchers and uniformed leadership” sought to sever any relationship between the institution and welfare. Though two decades of paternalism, modeled on the aforementioned “masculine paternal familialism” (see Parts I and II), had guided policy makers, government and military leaders wanted to separate such associations from service.

During the 1980s and as a result of the efforts of wives, the army had developed Family Support Groups (FSGs) as a means to provide household support. FSGs usually consisted of volunteer spouses (most often wives of the highest ranked commissioned officer and highest rank enlisted soldier organized and led volunteers), an officer and other representatives of established institutional supports such as the Chaplain’s Office, Army Community Services (ASC), and the Community and Family Support Center (CFSC). During the first Gulf War, they performed well—too well actually, Mittelstadt points out. Army leadership believed that enlisted spouses leaned too heavily on the FSGs and that the military’s larger welfare programs had raised expectations to unreasonable levels.[3]

The social and economic distance between officer wives and those of enlisted personnel exacerbated issues. The former often purposely maintained a division between themselves and their lower ranked counterparts. The Gulf War and the importance of FSGs forced the two groups into more frequent interaction. Among other issues, officer wives complained that their enlisted counterparts were financially ignorant, profligate, or both. Ultimately the amount of time and money dedicated to FSGs unnerved leadership and raised questions about dependencies.

Sociologists studying the military began depicting wives and military families in much the same way as they did civilian welfare recipients. That many of these sociologists had backgrounds working on poverty and welfare made such conclusions that much more likely, argues Mittelstadt. “Difficult families,” “multiproblem families,” “the overdependent spouse,” the “over demanding spouse,” and other familial categorizations came into use as a means to identify problematic households. For families that fell into one of these categories, deployments tended to only worsen pre-existing conditions, sociologists wrote. Just as Newt Gingrich and others demanded more self-sufficiency from civilian welfare recipients, many of whom happened to be women, so too did the army expect the same from its military wives and households.[4]

As a result, the army created a new program called Army Family Team Building (AFTB), aimed at “teaching families self sufficiency not fostering dependency.” The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) division of the army changed its philosophy in parallel with that of the 1996 welfare reform act known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Self-reliance became the watchword for military personnel and families. In this environment, FSGs continued to operate and provide support but did so with an increased attention to enhancing self-reliance.[5] FormerChief of Staff Wickham viewed such changes ruefully, warning the army that as an institution it needed to maintain its commitment to families. The new shift represented “lip service” rather than support. The army, he argued, would need to “prove it cared.” Unfortunately, despite Wickham’s warnings, shrinking budgets, a receding Cold War, and worries about dependency meant that costly support programs would be subject to revision and retrenchment.[6]

Though the role of female soldiers is not necessarily as central to her argument as military households, Mittelstadt does discuss the subject and in doing so again engages other works on the AVF. Beth Bailey notes in America’s Army that the military never did fully work out issues of sexuality and gender. Still, Bailey’s take on the role of women in the military remains a bit more optimistic than Mittlestadt’s. For the Temple professor, Desert Storm provided “the major turning point for military women.” The conflict enabled female soldiers to demonstrate their military acumen, while the death of five service women highlighted their sacrifices and contributions to the victory. By the end of the 1990s despite initial problems in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was “quite possible to argue that, despite remaining problems, the army offered more opportunity to racial minorities and to women than almost any segment of civilian society.”[7]

For Mittelstadt, Desert Storm raised many questions about women’s connection to service, whether as wives discussed above or as enlisted personnel and officers. Negative assessments of female soldiers and reports about increased rates of pregnancy among personnel undermined their service and led to critics asserting skepticism about the place of women in the military. “Former service women pointed out that the military began to monitor its numbers of women in the service using, the opportunity of the general drawdown of personnel in the wake of the end of the Cold War to stabilize the number of women in the armed forces rather than continuing to grow it to a more representative number,” she notes. [8]

Under President's Bush and Clinton, privatization of the military would reach new heights. "Bobblehead dolls of presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the store Political Americana, Washington, D.C.", photograph by Chris Martin, 1993 courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Under President’s Bush and Clinton, privatization of the military would reach new heights. “Bobblehead dolls of presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the store Political Americana, Washington, D.C.”, photograph by Chris Martin, 1993 courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Privatizing the AVF

Even before Bill Clinton took office, President George H. W. Bush had reduced Reagan era military spending from 6.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product to just over 5 percent. Over the course of his administration, defense spending declined by 17 percent. Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), beginning in 1988, also contributed significantly to these developments. Nonetheless, Clinton built on these policies and instituted the Reinvention of Government program which sought to incorporate business practices like reducing overhead, raising efficiencies, outsourcing, and ginning up “quality management” to make up for reduced spending. Clinton’s army consisted of 450,000 active duty personnel and 10 active army divisions.

Throughout the 1990s the contracting of support services increased: 1990 Army contracts for services totaled $13 billion, while ten years later it had risen to $23 billion. Much of this contracting involved more mundane tasks like managing property, food services, cleaning, public relations, and so forth. Large contracts went to companies providing health care, social work, and counseling, among other services. More than any other Democratic president, Clinton endorsed the kind of reduced government, pro-business economic models embraced by New Right leaders.[9]

For decades, free-market advocates had looked askance as the AVF constructed its social welfare programs. However, it would not be until the merging of the army’s internal “self reliance” policies and Clinton’s enthusiastic embrace of pro-market policies that Americans would witness the kind of privatized military for which many free-market supporters had advocated. “[W]ith the straitened military finances after the late 1980s and the concurrent Clinton era embrace of corporate methods, economists and corporate advisors to the federal government and Pentagon realized their long held goals,” asserts Mittelstadt.[10] It helped also that the Army’s officer corps had added a new generation of college-educated, pro-business leaders that, unlike earlier eras such as that of General William Westmoreland, were open to a more market-based military.

Internal organizations like the Army Material Command (AMC) experienced deep cuts. The AMC did not directly provide support services to service personnel but it operated to “provide across the board material support for the army.” Even before Clinton came to office, it had downsized markedly; by 1995, it had reduced its overall operations by over half. “There were 40 percent fewer maintenance depots, no supply depots, and a major reduction in management overhead,” writes Mittelstadt. In order to combat these cuts, AMC leaders embraced corporate methods like “Total Quality Management” (TQM, though in 1990s the army decided to dub it Total Army Quality so TAQ), which advocated for constant evaluation of measures related to customer satisfaction.  The customers in this case, presumably, service personal and their families.

Though TQM had begun before the 1990s, it took off in great measure in 1992 when General Jimmy D. Ross took over AMC. Mixing a Christian evangelical fervor with his own background in business and the military, Ross engaged private sector CEOs and business leaders and hired consultants to shape AMC policies.[11] The same year, General Dennis Reimer, Vice President Chief of Staff of the Army, endorsed TAQ and implemented it into the army’s plan for drawing down. “The Army is going to get smaller. The budget is going to be reduced,” but TAQ represented hope he told listeners.

FACILITY 710, REAR COURTYARD BETWEEN WINGS, VIEW FACING NORTHEAST. - Schofield Barracks Military Reservation, Corner-Entry Single-Family Housing Type, Between Bragg & Grime Streets near Williston Avenue, Wahiawa, Honolulu County, HI, photograph by David Franzen, 1996, courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
FACILITY 710, REAR COURTYARD BETWEEN WINGS, VIEW FACING NORTHEAST. – Schofield Barracks Military Reservation, Corner-Entry Single-Family Housing Type, Between Bragg & Grime Streets near Williston Avenue, Wahiawa, Honolulu County, HI, photograph by David Franzen, 1996, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American

Perhaps the most expensive area for military leaders was housing, yet for decades in both the conscripted and volunteer armies it also remained one of the most critical factors in retaining career personnel. Unfortunately, military housing, particularly for families, devoured army budgets. The 1996 MHPI enabled the army to create its own housing authority, the Residential Communities Initiative (RCI), which could “contract with large real estate and construction corporations.” The 1996 legislation also gave the army greater budget flexibility, enabling it to register new housing deals and structures as nil in annual budgets. Existing housing was transferred to the private sector. Firms “built on or renovated the hundreds of millions of dollars of ‘free’ property” handed over to their management and army officials, “charged none of the conveyance to its budget.”[12]

Admittedly, MHPI and RCI resulted in new homes and greater numbers of renovations, but the army and other branches of the military gave up oversight. “Soldiers facing maintenance issues, and the commanders who might try to assist them,” reflects Mittelstadt, “had to rely on the good graces of corporations like Balfour Beatty or Lend Lease with no recourse if these problems were not solved satisfactorily.”[13] In places like San Diego and Hampton Roads, VA, navy families have complained about a variety of issues from dangerous levels of mold to infiltration of housing by rats.[14] Moreover, as one Lt. Colonel at the Army War College pointed out in 2004, in addition to losing the power of oversight, the program actually didn’t save the military as much money as advocates suggested. Granted, the programs utilized private sector funding and made little to no appearance in federal budgets but it still required the transfer of large amounts of federal money to private firms in the form of BAH payments, not to mention the loss of a great deal of real estate property.[15]

The funding cuts of the 1990s led to changes in other areas as well. The Army Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR), responsible for providing soldiers and families with activities and resources including bowling alleys, libraries, and afterschool programs experienced deep reductions in spending, as much as 49 percent in the early 1990s. Due its tangential relationship to actual warfare, it became a “prime target for elimination and privatization,” according to Mittelstadt.

Having been previously paid for by a combination of appropriated and nonappropriated funds, nonappropriated funds were derived from fees paid by soldiers and families to use local recreation facilities in the new privatized army, it transformed into a business unto itself, even adopting and conveying a “corporate image of value and quality.”[16] Now nonappropriated fees would be leveraged with private sector loans to pay for operations. MWR modeled their restaurants and bars on popular brands like the Olive Garden or Houlihan’s, giving them names like “Primo’s Italian Restaurant,” “Reggie’s Beverage Company,” and “Sports USA.” Fees rose and several programs that had existed under MWR in previous years were cut if they did not easily fit into its new streamlined nature. According to Mittelstadt, the army demonstrated a unique lack of interest in determining how service personnel and families felt about the MWR and other privatization ventures. “In an institution known for creating doctrine – a reflective guide to action – regarding even the most mundane of tasks related to military operations, the lack of acknowledgement concerning the shift from army provided support for soldiers and families to privatized business provided support was unusual.”

Ultimately, one of the central ironies of the 1990s shift is that it occurred under a Democratic Bill Clinton rather than the very epitome of New Right free markets. Instead, Reagan spent lavishly on the military’s social welfare programs, while Bush and Clinton cut back sharply. Though Mittelstadt does not explore the affect of privatization on views of the military, other scholars like Catherine Lutz have. For Lutz, who explored the affect of Fort Brag on Fayetteville, North Carolina, privatization carried with it deleterious effects for locals as the “cost cutting” savings were passed on to the general public in the form of “lower wages for the workers involved.” Moreover, at the base level, Lutz suggests that a significant level of ambiguity existed among commanders regarding privatization efforts. Fort Bragg’s garrison commander expressed reservations about the development: “[T]he prospect of changing all this – and in a time of crisis being forced to rely on some private contractor who is not one of ‘us’ – is something that frankly scares the hell out of most green suitors.” In addition, Lutz adds that subcontractors sometimes treat what used to be considered public information as a “private commodity,” depriving both local citizenry and military officials from important knowledge. [17]

At this point it probably goes without saying that ToM thinks this book contributes importantly to the dialogue and history of the All Volunteer military. 2013 marked the AVF’s 40th anniversary, and though some view it as an unmitigated success, more than a few critics have raised questions about its efficacy and its affect on the idea of citizenship.

Today, the average citizen’s—let alone Congress’s—connection to the military has become increasingly remote. In my own family, my grandfather served as an Army Ranger in WWII even fighting at Normandy on D-Day; my father served in the army stateside during Vietnam; and one of my younger brothers has been a Senior Airman for the Air Force for several years, recently deployed for a three-year tour of Okinawa. Yet this is less and less common, and with recent wars like Afghanistan and Iraq and the much publicized struggle of returning veterans, observers ask whether we as a citizenry have any concept of sacrifice in the context of war. After 9/11, we were told to go shopping. The United States fought in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously yet each seemed like afterthoughts to the general public.

Critics such as Lutz argue that this shift has changed how we view citizenship. Civilian identity has been enhanced in contrast to military service, while familiarity with the armed services has declined. “[W]e might say the civilian has become more visible as many begin to hypervalue the soldier,” writes Lutz. “Civilians are motivated to value soldiers … in exchange for not being required to kill or die. Such a barter was not so urgent when the draft meant more families had already given their own children to the army.” In other words, the AVF draws a larger distinction between soldier and civilian; the latter’s status depending on the service of smaller and smaller proportion of the population that the general public, outside of NFL commercials and the usual statements thanks personnel for their service, seems to know less about every year.

Conversely, some citizens resent this arrangement, seeing the drive for U.S. hegemony abroad as forcing this unwanted relationship, while others view the AVF as “one occupation among many, duly compensated and requiring no cultural premium.” Whichever view, if any, one subscribes too, argues Lutz, we all become “sub-citizens” as “first class citizenship is militarized, those who are excluded explicitly or implicitly, including gays and lesbians and straight women, can see further erosion in their social status.”[18]

Others, such as Kathleen Frydl in her 2009 work The G.I. Bill, raise equally provocative questions. Like Lutz, Frydl wonders about the racial and class implications of the AVF, noting that the transformed military structure suffers from social and economic biases “evident to all observers except those deeply invested in defending it.” Yet she also notes that while a shift to “universal service” deserves consideration, such models should be “kept distinct from social policy questions.” The tradition of martial citizenship “bequeathed the nation a legacy of divided social policy.”[19]

Though Mittelstadt does not engage the former discussion of citizenship as directly, her work when put into dialogue with that of Lutz and others adds a valuable policy aspect to this debate. That said, a more robust discussion of this intersection would have been a welcome addition to The Rise of the Military Welfare State, but in many ways it is there implicitly. In regard to Frydl’s point about divided social policy however, it would be hard to not see that Mittelstadt endeavors to lay out the ramifications of “martial citizenship” and the divided social policy that Frydl articulates, which the Rutgers professor does in great detail.

In addition, though Mittelstadt certainly addresses issues of race in her work, it would have been good to know how much the burgeoning presence of African American soldiers and families affected how the public viewed the military, interactions between wives of officers and enlisted men, and ideas about dependency particularly in the wake of Desert Storm and the racially tinged welfare debates of the 1980 and 90s. During much of the AVF’s existence, African Americans have been overrepresented within the general military in comparison to their proportion of the population nationally, but especially in the Army. Their percentage of the army population exceeded 33 percent in 1981; for Desert Storm, they accounted for 29 percent. Granted, internally according to Moskos and Butler, the army’s attitude toward integration has been excellent, but considering the structural racism facing African Americans in American society it would seem to be a factor worth discussion. The fact that many enlisted female soldiers in the 1980s and 1990s were African American would be useful to discuss in the context of controversial debates regarding welfare policies. Mittelstadt admirably traces the many ways in which broader political, economic, and social trends intersected with military policy, but a more extensive discussion/investigation of the issue would have been welcomed.

All that noted, having spent five years writing about the integration of military housing into New Right sunbelt communities for my dissertation and various journals, this writer can tell you that the wealth of detail in the book regarding military families and the policies meant to address their needs is invaluable. The Rise of the Military Welfare State would have made my dissertation immensely easier and will prove extremely useful in thinking about the complexities of the AVF and its relationship to broader society. Beyond my own selfish interests, Mittelstadt provides a window into the many ways that the military serves as a microcosm of society in sociological terms and how it intersects with civilian world in the form of policies.

In a September article for Aeon, Mittelstadt argued that one of the central ironies at the heart of the AVF was that as government policies began to dismantle the social welfare state, supporting the ideals of deregulation and free markets, the army embraced it. It thrived, but did so Mittelstadt argues at the expense of civilian equivalents. “Its rise correlated with and, in some instances, caused the decline of the civilian welfare state, creating a diverging and unequal set of entitlements,” she wrote. “And the recent transformation of the military welfare state – a massive private[z]ation and outsourcing – signals an even more dangerous future for the civilian welfare state.” As our posts hopefully demonstrate, Mittelstadt traces this development from the 1970s to today.

In the end, however, judging from our three separate posts, ToM thinks pretty highly of The Rise of the Military Welfare State. In 2012, ToM contributor John Southard wrote about the “new military history”; touching on the ways it focused on more than battles, generals, and the like, he argued that this new wave of military studies served as a new means to not only look at the armed forces but also American society. Jennifer Mittelstadt, much as Kathleen Frydl did with The G.I. Bill (another excellent work), and Michael Sherry, Catherine Lutz, and numerous others mentioned throughout, has contributed an important contribution to the field. Anyone hoping to understand how the military simultaneously reflects and shapes American society would do well to consult each.


[1] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 208.

[2] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 173.

[3] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 177-178.

[4] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 181-182

[5] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 186-187.

[6] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 188.

[7] Beth Bailey, America’s Army: Making the All Volunteer Force, (New York: Belknap Press, 2009), 219.

[8] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 179.

[9] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 196-197, 202.

[10] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 190-191.

[11] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 193-195.

[12] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 206-207.

[13] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 210.

[14] Reft, “The Metropolitan Military,” 460-462.

[15] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 210.

[16] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 211-212.

[17] Lutz, Homefront, 224-225.

[18] Lutz, Homefront, 236.

[19] Kathleen Frydl, The G.I. Bill, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 372.