War as Livelihood: Military Service as a Means of Socioeconomic Mobility via Higher Education

I am writing this essay with reference to literary works that I encountered—in the form of assigned readings—for a course I recently completed as a student at a prestigious university. How I came to be a student at this university is that I served in the United States military. I served in the military because it was my only means of opportunity for upward socioeconomic mobility. My current situation is, in essence, the result of a chain of events intimately linked by economic factors. Although the lived experience differs greatly from person to person, and veteran to veteran, there are elements of my story that bear similarities with those of fellow student veterans. It is important that we explore the intricacies of these uniquely veteran experiences through an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the driving forces behind them. Bearing in mind socioeconomic factors, this essay aims to explore enlisted military service as a portal into the upper class by way of higher education.

For those who might not be familiar with military service or veterans, it is important that I provide a bit of background about the United States Military. The U.S. Military consists of four service branches: Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Each branch has its own ethos, set of values, and histories that are deeply steeped in tradition. There are essentially two paths one can take in order to join the ranks of the military. The first is to become commissioned as an officer, which means you will complete your undergraduate college degree prior to your service. Officers are the highest-ranking members of the military, and officer ranks have traditionally been filled with well-educated individuals from wealthier classes. The second route to service is through enlistment. This requires that you walk into a recruiting station, take a basic aptitude test along with completing a simple screening, and then you are shipped off to your respective branch’s basic training. During World War I and World War II, military service was viewed as a noble endeavor wherein society often considered war to be a crucible for turning boys into men. Post-Korean and Vietnam wars, society’s view of military service changed drastically, and as a result, military recruiters needed to greatly incentivize joining the ranks. 

The appeal of military service for individuals from lower socioeconomic classes is that enlistment requires neither money nor education. In return for your service—which for economic reasons we can also refer to as labor—you are paid, taught a skill or trade, given the opportunity to travel, and to top it all off, once you complete your service, the military pays for your college education via the GI Bill. In “The Muqaddimah; An Introduction to History,” Ibn Khaldun defines an individual’s “livelihood” as “the desire for sustenance and the effort to obtain it” (Khaldun 299). For members of the lower class, the desire for sustenance is an all-too-pervasive concept, and there is often tireless effort put forth to obtain it. This is where military enlistment becomes an unmissable labor opportunity that is commonly passed down from generation to generation among the lower class. Of note, is that the division of people into ranks is not exclusive to the military; society is also stratified into ranks, or classes. Khaldun points this out stating that, “rank affects people in whatever way they make their living. Whether it is influential or restricted depends on the class and status of the person who has a particular rank” (305). It sociologically and economically would make sense then, that individuals from the lower ranks of society would join the lower ranks of the military. This is also supported by Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Weber asserts that “The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him […] as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual […] to conform to capitalistic rules of action” (Weber 54). For those who are born into the lower classes, enlisting for military service begins as a lateral move that makes economic sense based on limited resources. Climbing ranks within the military is where one begins to learn about the politics of power and how to utilize resources to obtain more of it.

Power can take many forms; by definition, it is simply one’s ability to influence another. Capitalism is often discussed as an economic model that relies on power. Weber describes it in terms of competition for survival, saying, “the capitalism of to-day, which has come to dominate economic life, educates and selects the economic subjects which it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest” (55). This idea, of educating and selecting subjects through a process of survival of the fittest, can also be used to describe power and success in the military. Those who are toughest, smartest, learn the quickest, and are the hungriest, are the ones who climb into positions of higher authority. Here is where individuals who are accustomed to being among those in the lowest ranks are introduced to the concept of upward mobility. With an increase in rank comes an increase in pay, which equates to greater positional authority and economic power. This serves as an example of exactly how an individual from the lower class learns that they can, in fact, improve their socioeconomic status. Interestingly, this goes against what Karl Marx asserts in “The Marx-Engels Reader,” where he states, “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood;” (Marx 160). Perhaps this was true in the context of his time, but what Marx could not have accounted for was the consistent increase in compensation and benefits provided to those who are willing to risk life and limb for their country; or a steady paycheck. One such benefit is the afore-mentioned GI Bill, which pays full college tuition for military veterans at numerous institutions of higher learning. What’s more, is that even though the GI Bill has a monetary cap that usually amounts to the approximate cost of attending a state school, most expensive private schools participate in additional veteran-based aid programs that provide the additional funding and scholarships to cover their pricey tuition. The result is that higher education, even at the most elite institutions, has become almost entirely accessible to veterans. As we know, more education means more earning power. The definition of livelihood does not change once one serves in the military, but one’s livelihood certainly becomes less desperate and more opportunistic.

A common misconception held by the average civilian is that people who choose to serve do so out of some hyper-patriotic sense of duty or because they wholeheartedly believe in the causes of war. Although this may be true for some, realistically, the average service member experiences feelings of ambivalence about the act of service, and about the wars and conflicts in which they are duty-bound to participate. As someone who chose to enlist due to lack of economic opportunity or resources, I can testify that I spent just short of ten years wearing the uniform in order to improve my situation in life, a year of which was spent in a “war zone,” and many others spent deployed in support of national defense. I did it for the money, the healthcare, the stability, and for my future. I did it knowing I could save my money, leave the military, have my college education paid for, and seek a better life, one that would allow me to open doors I likely never could have opened pre-service. I have had many conversations with my fellow service members and veterans about why they joined and how they felt about their experience. It was not surprising to learn that many of them joined, and left, the military for the same reasons I did, and that their experience in the service left them with the understanding that they were capable of more, and hungry for it. Although enlisted veterans come from every walk of life, a great many of us came from very little. We worked hard, learned, and survived, but beyond that, many of us are now pursuing various fields of study at top universities.

Presently, and for the first time in the post-Vietnam era, veterans are considered valuable assets across many fields. In addition to the GI Bill, there are scholarships and free non-profit programs for veterans seeking to pursue higher education. There are career transition programs, research fellowships, and exclusive job opportunities. Hailing from the poorest, blue-collar classes of society, many veterans are now obtaining ivy and ivy plus educations and securing high salaried jobs across multiple industries. It was Khaldun who said, “The value realized from one’s labour corresponds to the value of one’s labour and the value of this labour as compared to the value of other labour and the need of the people for it” (Khaldun 305). Based on the increasing number of veterans who are being admitted to elite institutions on scholarship and GI Bill money, it appears that the value realized from military-service labor is at least fifty to eighty thousand dollars per year. Whether one’s overall time in military service is perceived as positive or negative, the experience and resources—particularly economic— that it provides, just might place the military among the last remaining bastions of the American dream.


Khaldūn Ibn, Rosenthal, F., & Dawood, N. J. (2015). The Muqaddimah: an introduction to history. Princeton University Press.

Tucker, R. C., Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1978). The Marx-Engels reader. Norton.

Weber M.A.X (2018). Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Wilder Publications.