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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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'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.