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Does the government shutdown mean the US stops fighting wars?

Troops still fight America’s wars during the government shutdown — but for free.

US Vice President Mike Pence speaks to troops in a hangar at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on December 21, 2017. 
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Not even a government shutdown stops the US military from fighting wars.

More than 290,000 US troops abroad will continue to sail ships, fly planes and helicopters, and patrol cities and towns throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. That means the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups, for example, won’t shut down just because the government did.

But there’s one major catch: Troops might not receive a paycheck for their work. If the government is still closed on February 1 — the Pentagon’s next payday — then troops must fight for free as their payment is deferred until the shutdown ends.

And it gets even worse. Around 50 percent of the civilian workforce and thousands of contractors who work for the Department of Defense in support of the military are now furloughed. Positions like accountants and secretaries — all of whom do critical work that makes the military run smoothly — are nevertheless considered “nonessential” during a shutdown and therefore stay home. They may not receive back pay, either; Congress has to vote to compensate furloughed employees once the government reopens.

That could have an important impact on how the military fights, James Miller, the top Pentagon policy official during the last government shutdown in 2013, told me. That’s because many of those furloughed civilians and contractors perform support functions that certain troops don’t have the expertise or time to do, Miller said.

But Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis asked his troops to continue fighting despite the temporary hardship. “Steady as she goes,” Mattis wrote in a January 19 memo, “hold the line. I know the Nation can count on you.”

The 2013 shutdown impacted the military too

Let’s rewind to the 2013 government shutdown, which lasted for two weeks.

Troops’ pain was slightly mitigated: Congress passed a law during the last closure that allowed the government to pay service members. That meant they received pay even though other members of the government didn’t.

(Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) proposed a similar measure during this shutdown, but last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t allow the proposal to reach the Senate floor for a vote.)

The military still faced hardships, though. Bob Hale, the Defense Department’s comptroller in 2013, wrote an August 2015 report for the Brookings Institution in which he detailed some of the ways morale dropped during the two-week closure:

  • The Pentagon canceled around 1,500 community events that hurt veterans organizations and recruiting.
  • Certain units had to cancel their previously scheduled trainings.
  • DOD couldn’t pay the families of deceased troop members to help with their added financial burdens.

That last one particularly hurt some military families. In October 2013, the military returned the bodies of four soldiers who died in Afghanistan. Because of the shutdown, the families of the fallen had to pay their own way to receive the bodies at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Usually the Pentagon covers their travel expenses.

The shutdown therefore impacted these four families and the loved ones of the around 336,000 US troops stationed around the world at the time — sometimes in the most personal ways.

The military is being used for political gain

On January 18 — the day before the shutdown — President Donald Trump tweeted, “A government shutdown will be devastating to our military ... something the Dems care very little about!” He made similar comments to reporters during a visit to the Pentagon a few hours later.

And during his trip to the Middle East this week, Vice President Mike Pence accused Democrats of playing politics with the military’s pay during the shutdown. “But you deserve better,” he told American service members near the Syrian border on Sunday.

The message from the White House and Republicans is clear: The Democrats have chosen to cripple the military in order to advance one of their pet issues.

But that’s not the full story. For starters, the military isn’t devastated by the shutdown, as Trump implied, even though military families will struggle in the short term. And part of the reason the government closed is because of Trump’s unwillingness to accept a bipartisan proposal to address the nearly 700,000 immigrants in legal limbo after he pledged to end DACA by March.

That means the approximately 900 so-called DREAMers — undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children — who currently serve in the military face deportation. And these troops have specific skills that help the military, including providing health care to fellow service members and translating.

That means the US military may soon find itself in wars around the world without certain experts that help it do its job.

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