In a column in today's New York Times entitled "Doing the Troops Wrong," op-ed writer Bob Herbert discusses the "New G.I. Bill" introduced by Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, which would expand benefits for returning soldiers and has received bipartisan support--but which also is, surprise surprise, opposed by the Bush administration and John McCain. I will leave it to you to read Herbert's customarily cogent arguments in favor of the bill. But I want to zero in on one of several arguments the Bush administration has made against it: Expanding benefits would make it more difficult to keep soldiers from leaving the military after one round of enlistment, the so-called "retention" problem. A recent article in USA Today quoted Thomas L. Bush, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense, as follows: "Attracting qualified recruits using large, across-the-board benefits incurs the risk that many who enter for the benefits will leave as soon as they can use them."
In other words, rather than a way of rewarding brave young men and women for service to their country, the Bush administration sees the G.I. Bill primarily as a come-on to entice them into the military, with all of its risks in time of war, in hopes of a better life later on. And the idea is clearly to make the inducements just tempting enough to get them in, but not so good that they will want to leave anytime soon. I know that what I am saying is pretty obvious, but is this not the most cynical possible attitude towards those who now are bearing the burden of the Bush administration's blunders in Iraq? (the key blunder, of course, being starting the war in the first place.)
I should mention that I personally benefited from the G.I. Bill back in the Vietnam era. I spelled out the circumstances of my Army service in an earlier post on this blog (basically, I went into the Army to organize against the Vietnam War.) When I left the Army in 1971, my father and I were pretty much estranged and I received no financial support from my parents when I wanted to return to college. Without the G.I. Bill, I never would have been able to do graduate work at UCLA and my life would certainly have turned out differently than it has--maybe for better, maybe for worse, but certainly differently!
Back then we had a draft. I have argued elsewhere that we need to bring back the draft, make it permanent in both peace and wartime, and this time there should be no exceptions other than for legitimate medical problems (and even those unable to serve in the military should be required to engage in other kinds of service.) Why? Because only when all Americans, without exception, are required to equally share the risks and burdens of decisions about going to war, will Americans think twice, three, and four times before they enthusiastically endorse disasters like the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, etc. etc. It's as simple as that.
Update: Fred Kaplan does the math today in Slate and concludes that the US can't send more troops to Afghanistan unless it pulls them out of Iraq. No wonder the Bush administration is so worried about "retention." By the way, the big elephant in the room is that the U.S. has no better chance of "winning" in Afghanistan than the Soviets did, something that neither Obama, Clinton, nor the mainstream media want to discuss.