Military Service as an Option to Build Career Capital
You might be interested in this post if you’re just kind of curious about the military or if you’re actually considering it as a career option.
I was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army on July 4th, 2011. There aren’t a lot of EAs with a military background, so I thought it’d be useful to offer some thoughts and perspective on what EAs might get out of military service. This post is U.S.-centric.
My service in the military has been as a lawyer, so my experience has been atypical in a lot of ways; then again, there is no one typical military experience. My perspective is also Army-centric, and I have less insight into the Navy or Air Force (or Marines or Space Force or Coast Guard). But some things about military service are pretty universal—I’ll try to focus more on those.
The post is organized thematically by aspects of military service that could be valuable to EAs.
Internalizing a Foreign Ethic
When I first joined the Army, everything about being a soldier was absurdly foreign to me. I basically had to play-act to get through my day. Whenever I used the words “sir” or “ma’am” I felt like I was secretly mocking people. Lifting my hand to my hat to salute felt so unnatural, I actually started humming a patriotic little horn ditty under my breath to try to convince my brain that saluting was the proper thing to do.
But if you do anything long enough it begins to feel natural.
This happened to me with a million little habits of military life: blousing my boots, doing push-ups (even lawyers do push-ups), standing at attention when a general enters the room, putting my hair in a bun, saying “roger” as an acknowledgement. After a while, my memories morphed in adaptation. I found myself recalling a pre-military conversation with my beloved political theory professor, an aged Gandhi scholar, and in my memory I called him “sir.” In reality he would’ve physically recoiled had I ever done such a thing.
These microdoses of cultural conditioning were related to and symbolic of a greater underlying shift that occurred in me over the years. I internalized a culture and an ethic very different from my native one. I began to see the beauty in things that had once been an anathema to me: traditional gender roles, hierarchy, nationalism.
I didn’t lose my original values; I expanded on them. I became more humble about them, and related better to people who didn’t hold them.
I think EAs are a uniquely skilled group at steelmanning others’ points of view. But noticing when something is in need of steelmanning is its own skill, different from the skill of actually doing the steelmanning. Having some emotional connection to an ethic very different from prevailing EA ethics, or the prevailing ethics of cultures that EAs tend to come from, makes this kind of noticing easy in contexts where those two ethics are in conflict.
But my suspicion is that an emotional connection to multiple ethical frameworks allows for general practice in perspective-taking (though not everyone will be inclined to practice perspective-taking). As a consequence, someone who has two (or more) different ethical frameworks that they feel a deep connection to may be more likely to notice when an entirely different ethical framework is being strawmanned or should be better steelmanned.
On the flip side, it’s possible that being acculturated to a different ethical framework could also help EAs be better calibrated about which criticisms of EA should be taken seriously. As a group, EAs tend to be so aware of the failure mode of not taking feedback well, that we forget about the failure mode of incorporating feedback that wasn’t actually in furtherance of our goals, or was just plain wrong. EAs are probably inclined to take criticism that feels foreign to them seriously even when it’s not useful because they’re afraid their motivation for rejecting it is that it feels foreign. Having an emotional connection to a foreign ethic may help EAs distinguish between rejecting something because it feels foreign and rejecting something because it’s actually just not useful.
Understanding and Navigating Bureaucracy
A post about EAs joining the foreign service said, “Successful bureaucrats learn to navigate endless standard operating procedures, mounds of paperwork, and complex interoffice politics in order to achieve progress. Even in a large organization, who you know still trumps the best available evidence in most cases.”
The U.S. military is the king of bureaucracies. One unit I was with had a chili cookoff, and everyone who entered had to take a course to get certified on food handling. There’s a whole regulation on Army Laundry and Dry Cleaning Operations; (don’t worry, it’s not just regulations, there’s also a pamphlet AND a manual for conducting laundry and dry cleaning operations). At one point, I had to climb on my husband’s shoulders to read the weight of our loaded Honda Accord from a scale built for semi trucks; it’d be too complicated to even explain the bureaucracy that made this necessary.
But there are patterns to navigating bureaucracy, and learning those patterns can be incredibly valuable, especially if you want to go into a policy field. A lot of policy happens at the regulatory level, and knowing how to move through bureaucracies can greatly reduce timelines or just make things happen that would not otherwise have happened.
Another valuable aspect of being exposed to military bureaucracy is that it can help you understand how such byzantine systems get created in the first place. For the most part, each little part of a bureaucratic system made sense in isolation; it was, at worst, an overcorrection for a real problem. As one of my old supervisors liked to say, “Why react, when you can overreact?”
Knowing when to streamline operations versus when to let decision-making happen from the bottom up is an important managerial skill, and is likely to be particularly valuable as EA organizations scale. Unfortunately, in my experience, the current military structure provides lessons mostly in what not to do, but they are nonetheless useful lessons.
Understanding National Security
Like it or not, the U.S. military is a powerful player in the national security and international relations landscape. Many people understand both the doctrine and the reality of how decisions are made in the military. And many other people have a strong theoretical/academic background in international relations and national security. The field of people who have both is much smaller. The field of EAs who have both is probably in the single digits. (I’m part of a LinkedIn group of military EAs, and it has 11 members.)
I never actively pursued a career in policy, and haven’t done much research on this, so I have only vague ideas about how having both theoretical and practical experience would end up mattering in this realm, aside from just the credentials/credibility. But the credibility is huge—overwhelming at times. A reader of a draft of this post who also has a military background noted, “people assume you naturally know everything about defense/foreign policy/veterans issues if you served at all.”
Aside from credibility, one thing that seems likely to matter is that in many circumstances, a person with practical experience can see where friction is likely to arise from a given policy proposal. For example, in this video, Paul Scharre provides a personal anecdote that implicitly responds to the policy proposal that to make autonomous weapons safe, we should program them to follow the laws of war. Scharre’s experience allows him to spot and distill how the difference between what is legal and what most would consider moral would make this an unsatisfactory policy solution.
You also get a more realistic perspective on how people will deal with a given policy in practice. For example, since storing and transporting ammunition can be kind of hazardous, and you want to make sure ammunition is generally accounted for, it makes sense to have some reasonably strict guidance around activities dealing with ammunition. In reality, what happens if these rules require much extra work is that the unit will just shoot every last round when they go out to the range. What’s more fun: counting rounds, carefully putting each round back in a box, exactingly taping each box closed, and doing a bunch of related paperwork, or putting your rifle on burst and letting her rip? Either way the safety problem of transporting, storing, and accounting for ammunition is solved.
Since a lot of EA policy issues deal with the long-term future and events that are not really like other things that have already come about, practical experience may be somewhat less useful in spotting frictions in policy proposals as it would be in other fields. Though for projects dealing with how we should respond in a crisis (like a global biohazard event, or ‘AI crunch time’), it could be invaluable to have EAs who could provide an accurate assessment of U.S. defense thinking so that we’re more likely to get where we want to go.
Serving in the military is a resume builder like no other. For starters, you will have an actual job that you are trained to do (called your MOS, short for Military Occupational Specialty). Unless you’re infantry or one of the other “line” MOSes, it’ll have a civilian-world analogue: human resources, logistics, intelligence, tech support, etc. And even line officers run the operations shops. So, you gain a specific, tactical, useful skill that will transfer to civilian contexts.
Aside from that, you’ll likely get a leg-up as a veteran when applying to federal jobs. This isn’t just because agencies like hiring former military folks, it’s an actual legal mandate. But the government and other employers really do like hiring military folks—it’s often viewed as a minority status.
Military service is also a high-cost signal of certain values, such as patriotism and honesty. This is a weird one because most EAs don’t tend to hold the many of the values that military service signals (with honesty as an obvious exception). It’s nonetheless been one of the most valuable things I’ve gotten out of military service because it buys me a whole lot of extra “weirdness points” especially with people who had few to spare for someone like me in the first place. Generally this isn’t going to be enough to get, say, your average Southern Baptist to hear you out on the importance of making the world a great place for potentially quadrillions of future digital people. But you could probably get to deworming.
The high-cost signaling also may be why military service is such a useful credential for entering into politics. In the book Starship Troopers, human civilization is at war with alien “bugs” and people have to serve in the military to earn the right to vote. The theory is that if you prove you’re willing to put your life on the line for the good of your civilization, then you’ll also vote for the good of your civilization and not just your individual selfish wants. I think many voters hold some kind of less explicit version of this theory.
Along with signaling certain values, military service signals something like… coolness. It’s exotic and brave, the stuff of legends. It increases people’s curiosity about you. If you know how to give people permission to actually ask you about your military service, this can be a gold mine when it comes to networking and job interviews.
Other tangible benefits of military service include:
For non-U.S. citizens, it can be a path to citizenship (though may not be that helpful in dealing with the hardest steps on the path to citizenship)
You’ll most likely get a security clearance out of it
You’ll stay physically fit (and possibly build really good habits around this for the rest of your life)
You’ll may become eligible lifetime access to the VA for medical care (which is not always so great, but it’s a lot better than nothing)
You could earn a GI Bill, which pays full in-state tuition or its equivalent at a private school and a generous housing and book allowance for up the 36 months of school (or professional programs); it’s also transferable to a spouse or kids
You’ll expand your professional network
If you’re inclined to stay in, you can retire with a pension after 20 years of service, and have a huge amount of financial independence at a relatively young age
And while I’ve already gone through a number of intangibles, there are a couple more worth mentioning.
The first is the experience of “heroic conformity”. In “Why Our Kind Can’t Cooperate” Eliezer Yudkowsky writes of rationalists, “Our culture puts all the emphasis on heroic disagreement and heroic defiance, and none on heroic agreement or heroic group consensus. We signal our superior intelligence and our membership in the nonconformist community by inventing clever objections to others’ arguments.” This is one of the many areas of cultural overlap between rationalists and EAs.
Unsurprisingly, the military is not like this, and it works. It’s not that you can’t disagree—in fact in many ways it’s easier to disagree because there are built-in ways to signal respectful disagreement (use appropriate titles and confront people in private) - it’s that publicly disagreeing doesn’t win you points. If you contribute nothing to a meeting, that doesn’t mean you didn’t do your job; it does mean you helped the meeting go faster. I wouldn’t trade EA epistemic norms for military epistemic norms by a long shot. But it’d probably benefit EAs to have better access to this mode and a sense of when it’s useful.
The second and final intangible benefit worth mentioning is the experience of a really special environment when it comes to diversity. I hesitated to add this because as an upper-middle-class, white person, it feels out of place for me to be singing the praises of the military’s racial and soci-economic harmony. But, even though I grew up going to international schools, and then I lived in New York City for ten years, being on active duty was far and away the time I was most integrated with a truly diverse group of people.
The military is more socioeconomically diverse than any other forum I can think of. It’s a common misconception that the poor are overrepresented in military service. In fact, the bottom quintile of household incomes is underrepresented among enlisted recruits (at 19%). The top quintile is also underrepresented among enlisted recruits (at 17%). However, officers are required to have college degrees, so they likely come from wealthier backgrounds than enlisted recruits. Officers make up about 18% of the military, so it’s possible that once you account for both officers and enlisted, the top quintile of household incomes is overrepresented in the military.
The military is also generally pretty racially representative. But, at least in my experience, the thing that was more remarkable about race in the military than representativeness was how low-anxiety race-relations were. There’s a baseline trust that members of the military share that perhaps comes from the fact that we all agreed to do this high-cost thing, so we must share at least some values. But also, maybe when everyone has to wear the same dumb clothes, and have similar haircuts, and use the same vernacular, a lot of the worries about missteps and miscommunications just melt away.
A less discussed aspect of diversity that I also found valuable in the military was that of cognitive talent. IQ correlates strongly with income and educational attainment, so if you grew up in a wealthy environment, you were more likely to be around people who were smarter than average. And then things get further stratified when people go off to college. Even at a pretty average university, you’re going to be among almost exclusively above-average-intelligence people. And the EA community is even more distorting.
Joining the military requires a high school degree or its equivalent and a minimum score on the ASVAB (an aptitude test that is strongly correlated with IQ). The cutoff varies by branch of service, but roughly, people who score in the bottom third of this test are not qualified to join the military.
Even though this means that you still won’t get a real sense of the spread of intelligence in the general population by joining the military, you’ll get a much more realistic sense than you would at college or in the EA community. I think the main thing this did for me was help me better model what going through life in our complex society feels like to people who have fewer tools than I do to understand it. It’s hard out there, and when I really stop and think about it, I have little anger left for people who believe insane, disprovable things.
Of course there are a lot of good reasons not to join the military. Chief among them: you could get sent to war and killed. Also, it’s pretty morally fraught.
If you’re comfortable with arguments like “it’s better that you’re in that position than someone else, because you’ll do the least bad thing available,” then you probably won’t have too many issues with the moral conundrums presented by military service. Although I deployed to Afghanistan twice and served as a legal advisor on many lethal and non-lethal strikes, those situations didn’t strike me as particularly morally complicated. That’s in part because our rules of engagement were very strict by the time I deployed, but also because my role was always to minimize the amount of harm we were doing.
For people interested in thinking through some of the moral issues with service, and with killing in particular, I recommend On Killing by LTC Dave Grossman, Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Waltzer, and Killing in War by Jeff McMahan (and if you want to get even more into the weeds, you can read my husband’s criticism of Killing in War here). I also thought the fiction book Missionaries did a great job presenting the moral complexities of modern warfare.
If EA and rationalist gatherings are your scene, then you’re probably not gonna find your people in the military. And what’s worse is that the military may well send you to a place where you’re unlikely to find your people among the civilian population either. If you’re a straight, available woman, you may find some decent prospects for romance. If you’re a straight, available man… maybe try to find a girlfriend before you sign up? I have no idea what the scene is like for queer folks, but my guess is that it’s not great.
The good news is that being in the military can expand the ways you bond with people. It did for me. So while making friends may not come easily, you may learn to love hangouts that don’t involve iterating on trolley problems and debating moral realism. You could become a jock! Just trade in your Huel for a protein shake and some NO Xplode!
The military is not reputed to be the most friendly place for women and LGBTQ people. My own experience was that sexism was real, but usually came from a place of misunderstanding and there was almost always a will to remedy it. In some ways this actually made my service even more of a pleasure because I really felt like I could make progress.
Homophobia can vary a lot depending on what type of unit you’re in—also what branch you’re in. My impression is that the Air Force and Navy are far less homophobic than the Army or the Marines. Units where the work was primarily desk-bound tended to have far less homophobic environments than line units. To the extent I directly observed homophobia, it was never directed at real people who were present; it more took the form of generic slurs and insults. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the derogatory comments were about gay men, not lesbians (and they didn’t tend to be nuanced enough to hit on bisexuality). Relatedly, I knew many lesbians in the Army, but very few gay men.
Transphobia was quite strong when I last served on active duty (which was 2017). I find it hard to imagine a situation where I would encourage a trans or non-binary person to volunteer for military service.
A last category worth mentioning, even though it’s pretty niche, is polyamorous folks. Military culture has a kind of weird and interesting relationship with non-monogamy. There has historically been an open-secret subculture of swinging, which makes for strange bedfellows with the military’s generally Christian sexual norms. But adultery is illegal and not in the way that apprenticing a minor to the circus is still illegal in Georgia; it’s actually enforced. There is a bit of a don’t-ask-don’t tell culture surrounding people’s personal lives, so it’s not widely enforced. But if you’re in hot water for some other reason, and you’re poly and legally married, that could easily be the thing that ends up bringing you down.
Loss of Self-Determination
Once you sign the dotted line with the military, you have zero bargaining power. If you’re on active duty, the military gets to choose what city you work in, what job you’ll do, who your boss is going to be, when you’ll attend trainings. Don’t like it? Well not showing up to work is a federal crime. Even being late for work is a federal crime!
For the most part having no say in my location didn’t bother me. It was like closing my eyes and pointing to a place on a map to figure out where I’d live. It felt daring and adventurous, and I enjoyed proving to myself that I could be happy anywhere. And for the most part, if you have a good reason for wanting to be somewhere in particular, people will try to accommodate that. (though what you consider a good reason might not be the same as what the military considers good reason)
I did have more than one truly toxic supervisor, and that was pretty miserable. I learned a lot from these experiences, but there were a couple that were sufficiently bad that the lessons learned were not worth it. It’s rare that you’ll have the same direct supervisor for more than about a year. Quitting a job in the civilian world is sufficiently high stakes that I think it’d be somewhat uncommon to leave a job due to a bad but temporary supervisor. So the fact that quitting is usually not an option in the military may be more of a mental downside than a practical one.
Dealing with Authority
Another reason people often give for not wanting to serve is that they don’t deal well with authority. I’m never quite sure how to respond to this, because this is usually from people who graduated high school and college and work in jobs where they have a boss and have little-to-no friction relating to ‘dealing with authority’ in all of these endeavors.
I suspect there’s some sort of cultural disconnect where people think being in the military mostly involves having a drill sergeant type bark orders at you all day, and your job is to just stare at a fixed point in front of you and say “yes, sir!” Either that or people say that they don’t deal well with authority as a stand in for something like “the aesthetics of group conformity gross me out.”
For me being in the military meant having more independence than I did in, say, boarding school, but probably a bit less than I did in college. I think the main reason I’d say I had less independence than I did in college is that I had to get travel plans approved anytime I wanted to go outside of a 200 mile radius of my duty station. And of course I had to wear uniforms and such.
I don’t think I once had someone say “that’s an order!” to me. For the most part when I was “ordered” to do something it sounded exactly the same as when I am asked to work on something at Open Philanthropy: a polite request.
Granted, I was an officer, not enlisted. I’d guess that enlisted folks, once done with their initial training, would say that they have more independence than they did in high school in some ways, and less in others. More because you can go out and party on the weekends, and as long as you show up ready to work at 0630 on Monday, no one will ask you about it. Less because you’re subject to things like random drug tests, not-infrequent extra duties (like manning the entry desk in the barracks), and having to show up and work out at 0630 (or sometimes earlier) most days. Also, junior enlisted have to live in the barracks, unless they’re married (also you get paid more if you’re married; so if you’re looking for reasons divorce rates in the military are higher than average, you might want to start with those two facts).
Important caveat that everything in this section is about garrison life (garrison = at home base); a deployed environment is a totally different story, and much more limiting.
You don’t have to go full bore and join the active duty military to get a lot of these benefits. Another option is becoming a “weekend warrior” by joining the reserves or national guard. In these positions you join and go to training, and once your training is complete you drill (show up to your unit’s location) one weekend a month plus two weeks a year. The commitment has tended to creep over the years, so many reservists put significantly more time than this into their military duties.
In my experience being a reservist does not have the same cachet as serving on active duty and it is not the same immersive cultural experience. I have also found its bureaucracy to be significantly more annoying. Military systems are built with active duty service members in mind, so they often just don’t work for reservists.
Another EA with military experience writes, “I really think being a reservist/guardsperson gives you almost all the benefits EA-wise as being active. And you also generally have more opportunities—if you put in a little extra work, you can be by-far the best person at your job because you are competing against other people who are doing this as their second job. This allows for significant opportunities—not necessarily promotion, but doing all the cool things that are what are most valuable for a post-military national security/policy career.”
I think it’s unlikely that a military career will be the highest impact option for almost any EA, but a stint in the military for early career EAs could be an extremely effective way to build career capital. The entry-level roles in the military are often more valuable towards career capital than the roles you get with more experience. The most junior soldiers are the ones ‘doing the thing’ - the boots on the ground. Also, if you’re an officer, you’re often immediately in charge of 10-35 people.
Promotion for officers in the military is lock-step; if you truly excel at your job, you’ll get promoted at most a year earlier than your peers. So if your goal is to work your way up to a highly influential government position, chances are you can do so more quickly in civilian service. A stint in the military is useful for the many reasons discussed above, but a six- or eight-year stint is probably not more useful than a three- or four-year one.
I didn’t choose the date.
I grew up as an American ex-pat, but my European upbringing and coastal elite baseline have more in common with each other than either does with U.S. Army culture.
On the other hand, occasionally other service members can sniff out this motivation. As a woman with left-leaning politics and an elite education, this was an obvious explanation for my service, even though it was not my motivation. This meant that it took some extra care for me to build trust and rapport with my colleagues.
People are often hesitant to ask about military service. I suspect this is for a variety of reasons, including (1) there are a lot of trauma narratives surrounding military service, so it could feel inappropriate, (2) people are afraid of tokenizing, (3) people have so little knowledge about the military that they don’t have the vocabulary to ask questions about it.
Pay scales are deceiving because they don’t include the tax-free allowance for housing, which can account for something like half of your income.
There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding that military healthcare happens through the VA. This is incorrect—the VA provides healthcare to veterans, not people who are currently serving. People who are currently serving are on Tricare and see military providers free of charge, or they can take their insurance to private practitioners, though this is a bit more involved.
Between my first and second deployment I was a prosecutor for my unit, and I found that to be much more morally trying.
Full disclosure: the author is a friend of mine. Also, he recently published Uncertain Ground, which probably also deserves a mention in this paragraph, but I haven’t read it yet.
In my special forces unit this kind of talk was really common; I made a rule that if you were going to say something about someone being gay, you had to end your sentence with “and so am I” or “and that’s what I like about you.” Even though I had no actual authority to make rules, this got followed because it was funny. It was really effective both at cutting down on this talk, and at taking the sting out of it when it did happen.
I wrote a piece on my experience conducting training on the roll-out of Obama’s transgender policy for the military during my deployment with Special Forces. I never ended up publishing it. It can be found here.
Not showing up to work is being Absent Without Leave or AWOL; this usually doesn’t get prosecuted as an actual crime unless it’s prolonged. Being late to work is called Failure to Report. In reality this only gets prosecuted when it’s tacked on to other more serious misbehavior.