The military as a social construct is a widely varied, vast and historically rich field to study. Throughout history, life before, between and after battles concerned housing, socializing, and relating to people in the disputed regions, at home, and in permanent or temporary camps and bases.
The American military is one which pays deep respect to the Roman style of supporting families who traveled with the large armies and lived at the more permanent installations. Today’s military determined long ago that providing the maximum support for the families of the soldiers, sailors and airmen was a major factor in retaining volunteers.
During the past thirty years, the US military has been an all volunteer force. As a result, the overall construct of keeping families together, providing support and housing, and transporting whole households to far flung places, if necessary, has been at the core of our military retention policy.
In the 1970s, women had a traditional role as the supporters of their husband’s business and professional image. Women were expected to serve as the managers of the household as well as in community service positions that enhanced their husband’s image.
Times were hard for military women who were abandoned or divorced by their husbands, however. They were quickly cut off from their position in the military and from the support that the military provided. Many found themselves in isolated areas, far from home, with the children, and with no support.
Now, things are not much better in terms of divorcees or widows and the children having to suddenly leave the military, but there are improvements in getting child support, Veteran’s benefits, Social Security, and other support as needed.
But the late 1970s were also times of massive openings in military and civilian fields that were previously closed to women. A huge group of women, as a result, were now the homemakers, social service volunteers, AND the soldiers, too. In many cases, the male spouse was the civilian counterpart of a household.
Gay and lesbian soldiers have always been a part of the military social community. Whether legally married, divorced or single, gay soldiers can play any traditional social role that is appropriate for men and women on a military base. There has always been a high level of personal and social tolerance for gay and lesbian soldiers that was based on the qualities of the individual and whether the individuals exercised discretion.
This is because heterosexuals in the military have, and have always had, massive amounts of adultery and other sexual proclivities that are equally illegal. No one truly benefited from pointing fingers thirty years ago, or does so now.
While there has always been a stabilized core of very young and very inexperienced singles and couples who enter military social life, the older and wiser members of military life have not changed the social requirements that soldiers and families have to meet in order to be judged on their overall image and performance. Personal life conduct is still evaluated as a component of one’s overall image and performance, while civilian life allows comparable immense privacy while away from the job.
Club membership is still an unwritten mandatory requirement for non commissioned and commissioned officers. Volunteer work to help the community at large is still required of officers and any enlisted personnel who wish to gain extra award and recognition. Those who live on base are still living in a very close community that is still called “life in the fishbowl”. And the rank of one spouse still filters over to the relative social position of the other spouse.
There is still a line that is not to be crossed in social interaction between Officer and Enlisted personnel, and on base housing is still generally segregated. However, in the past thirty years, there is a vast increase in opportunities to live in off base housing, often in communities that are distant from the military installation. This creates either a dilution of the military societies off duty relationships, or a separation between those who are “base” or “economy” folks.
Finally, while a woman’s ability to be independent, to have careers, and to meet the highest educational goals has created new roles in military social life, there are still large blocs of women who play the traditional roles of homemaker and informal social support for their husband’s careers.
Many of those who play traditional roles have always provided a lot of badly needed support and help for the younger members of base society, both single and married. Many of those who are in “traditional” roles are substantial men and women who act as single parents, and who contribute to the well being of others on base while their spouses are on long term and short term deployments.
As a result, in thirty years, there have been vast areas of change, but there have also been major areas of military social life that have stayed the same.