Peace Time: June 30, 2003

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The Department of Defense now plans to replace some 20 percent of current uniformed personnel with civilians. And this time they're serious. This move is a reversal of a 20th century military development that put many of the traditional "camp followers" in uniform. Camp followers usually are thought of as loose women following an army to service the troops. There was always some of that, still is, but historically camp followers have largely been male and mainly there to do the housekeeping and keep the troops alive in the field. Battles have always been relatively rare, but the health hazards of camping out with thousands of men and horses were constant and abundant. The troops knew this, and until the last few centuries, most soldiers were volunteers of one sort or another and few generals could get their lads to rough it without a lot of camp followers to keep everyone in good health. 

There were usually more camp followers than troops, with the ratio of helpers to fighters as high as ten to one. There was a lot for camp followers to do. Pack animals had to be cared for, tents pitched, water carried, wood chopped, food bought or stolen from the locals and cooked. Then everything had to be packed up for the next march. During battles, the camp followers stayed behind in the camp, often fortifying it and using a few weapons and their bare hands to defend it against any enemy troops who got that far. After the battles, camp followers tended the injured, buried the dead and plundered the enemy corpses.

While it was much more efficient to have the troops do their own housekeeping in the field, few armies were disciplined enough to pull this off. The more successful armies did, like the ancient Romans, who traveled light. When a Roman army of 10,000 showed up, there were some 8,000 fighters with it. Most other armies could produce only a few thousand warriors out of 10,000. Since most armies lived off the land, and this often limited the size of the army, the force that hauled along the fewest camp followers had a substantial military advantage.

This lesson eventually was relearned, and camp followers began to thin out in most Western armies, and those that remained were put into uniform. A century ago, support troops amounted to less than 15 percent of an army. Civilians now handled a lot of transportation and supply jobs. If you were in uniform, it meant that you were trained to fight. But in the last century a lot more equipment has been added. Not just things like trucks, trains, transport aircraft and cargo ships that civilians could be hired to run, but weapons and other gear close to the front that needed soldiers to take care of them. In the last century, the camp followers in uniform have increased to the point where they comprise about 85 percent of an army. Yet everyone wears the same uniform, goes through a lot of the same initial training and gets the same pay. Wearing a uniform now means that you are probably not a fighter. Moreover, it's difficult to get the kind of technical specialists that are needed because military pay scales don't allow for meeting the pay demands of the really hard-to-get people with skills you need. Even the Army recruiting efforts make much of the majority of non-combat, and "civilian" jobs available. The U.S. Marine Corps is different. All marines are still considered combat troops first, and whatever non-combat chores they might do every day as secondary. More and more, the marines are seen as the troops you can trust if there's going to be a really desperate fight. 

 

Out of the Marine experience came the idea of converting more of the military "civilian" jobs to civilians. Actually, this has been going on for some time. In the 1960s, the army began to hire minimum wage civilians to do "KP" ("Kitchen Police," where each low ranking soldier helped out in the kitchen one or two days a month.) It was noted that troops who were technicians, going to a school or holding critical jobs, were losing valuable time, or training, but getting assigned to KP. Same thing with guard duty, which was assigned much like KP. MPs or civilian guards gradually replaced troops doing guard duty. Many other similar jobs, like cutting grass, were taken away from the troops, particularly after the military went all-volunteer in the 1970s. 

Without much fanfare, more and more civilian specialists began to show up in military units. Some were maintaining complex electronic gear or computer software. Others were again, as in centuries past, handling transportation and taking care of logistics. The pre-positioned combat equipment held in readiness, a technique that is over two decades, was maintained by civilians. In some army and air force units, vehicle and aircraft maintenance was done by civilians, at least within the United States. The current proposal is getting away from the gradual civilianization of military jobs and going after the many similar jobs everybody knows about

 


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