The Magazine

The War Over the War (cont.)

What the G.I. Bill debate is really about.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By REIHAN SALAM
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There's the war in Iraq and then there is the war over the war in Iraq. The first is about gaining ground against the sectarian militias and terrorists who plague that country. The second is about storytelling.

Advocates of staying and fighting in Iraq are at a distinct disadvantage in the second war. The burden of the Iraq fighting falls on such a small number of military families that it is easy to portray the troops in the field as victims. This has proved an effective strategy for Virginia's junior senator, Jim Webb, a staunch opponent of the surge. Once seen as an irascible loose cannon, he has used his experience in the Pentagon--he served as Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and had a brief, controversial stint as secretary of the Navy--to mount a disciplined attack on the Bush administration's personnel policy, what you might call the soft underbelly of the surge.

Politically speaking, advocates of withdrawal are in a bind. Though all depends on how the question is asked, a CNN poll conducted in late April found that only a third of Americans say they want all U.S. troops out of Iraq immediately. Another third want to withdraw some troops, and a fifth want troop levels to stay where they are. Despite the general unpopularity of the Iraq war, Cindy Sheehan-esque calls for bugging out aren't popular.

In 2007, Democrats failed in efforts to pull the plug on the war by denying the military the funds it needs to keep the troops on the battlefield. This is where Webb has proven adept. Rather than try to bring the troops home directly, Webb has focused on an advocacy campaign for the troops. And if that means we can't sustain U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, so be it.

Last year, Webb sponsored an amendment that aimed to give troops more "dwell time" between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, especially a minimum of three years for National Guard and Reserve units. The measure had an obvious appeal as the strains of increased deployments have pushed many military families to the breaking point. But, as Webb surely understood, it also would have made the surge strategy impossible. At the last minute, Webb lost a key ally, Senator John Warner, and the measure died.

This year, Webb has built a broad coalition around his generous "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act," designed to dramatically increase G.I. educational benefits. All told, the measure has 56 cosponsors, including Senate Republicans like Warner and Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar. By including the measure in its $195 billion emergency war-funding package, the Democratic congressional leadership has all but dared the White House to veto it.

The case for Webb's proposal is rooted in the extraordinary success of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. Because men who managed to avoid the draft had made economic progress over the war years, there was a fear that veterans would have a hard time catching up--and that resentment would build. The G.I. Bill offered a generous educational benefit that gave millions of veterans a foothold in the middle class and sparked a dramatic expansion of American higher education. At the time, the benefit was more than enough to cover the then-modest cost of a college education. The military emerged as an engine of opportunity.

Webb emphasizes that veterans' educational benefits haven't kept up with the increases in the costs of higher education, particularly when it comes to elite public and private colleges.

But it's also true that we've had an all-volunteer force for decades. Whereas the original G.I. Bill was understood as compensation for conscription--for taking the best years of millions of young lives--later versions of the legislation, including the 1985 Montgomery G.I. Bill that is the basis of current educational benefit, have served as a relatively small part of a broader incentive package for serving in the armed forces. Signing bonuses and reenlistment bonuses are what have skyrocketed post-9/11, and servicemen are free to use this bonus money as they choose--a down payment on a house, to start a business, to finance their education.

Webb's proposal, though, goes well beyond even the most generous enlistment bonuses, provided the money is spent on education. Right now, active-duty veterans can receive up to $1,101 a month, an amount that is not quite adequate for room and board at the average in-state public school, let alone the most expensive. Webb would raise monthly benefits to match the most expensive in-state public school tuition and also provide a housing allowance at the military's E-5 standard--generally understood to be enough to rent a two-bedroom townhouse.

The sponsors claim that the new approach will cost around $2 billion a year, a small share of the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a small price to pay for doing right by veterans. The more pressing concern is what effect the proposed legislation will have on our ability to sustain a long military campaign. In Webb's bill, the maximum benefit kicks in after 36 months of active duty. Assuming a large number of new recruits are drawn to service on the basis of the new benefit, which seems to be Webb's intent, keeping them in the ranks will require far higher reenlistment bonuses, according to a study sponsored by the Department of Defense.

As Webb told Military.com's Tom Philpott in March, the military relies heavily on "this one demographic group they keep pounding on and throwing money at. Yet there's a whole different demographic group that would be attracted to coming in and serving a term." He is right that the military leadership has a strong preference for a career force rather than a force defined by high rates of turnover, for the same reason that virtually all employers prefer experienced employees.

Last week, Senators Lindsey Graham, Richard Burr, and John McCain, taking a cue from Defense Department objections, introduced an alternative bill, which increases monthly G.I. educational benefits to $1,500 per month. For those who serve in active duty for 12 years or more, the benefit increases to $2,000 a month. The Graham-Burr-McCain bill also allows servicemen to transfer education benefits to a spouse or to children. Half of benefits can be transferred after 6 years of service and all benefits can be transferred after 12 years. Webb is strongly opposed to transferability--perhaps because transferability is a way of turning spouses and children into reenlistment recruiters. Military families, as you can guess, like the idea.

Overall, the Graham-Burr-McCain approach seems more likely to yield an effective fighting force composed of women and men interested in making a long-term commitment. The Webb bill, in contrast, could lead to more college-bound Americans signing up, but it will also probably mean a higher number will leave the military once they reach the maximum benefit level. It's no surprise that McCain, who has a shot at being commander in chief, would rather not see reenlistment rates plummet. Webb, in contrast, who is always fighting the war over the war, is far less likely to have a philosophical objection to making wars like our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan far more expensive to fight.

This relatively minor legislative battle over whether and how the military should try to bring together Americans of different class backgrounds is really a major battle in the war over the war in Iraq.

Reihan Salam is an editor at the
Atlantic Monthly and a fellow at the
New America Foundation. With Ross Douthat, he is the author of Grand New Party,
to be published by Doubleday in June.