Since the Second World War, the American government has made a point of helping returning G.I.’s get their lives back on track. Enacted in 1944, the Second World War G.I. Bill has, in varied forms, been reenacted following every war since 1945. Yet for today’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress and the president have not been nearly as generous.
In this harsh environment, two vastly different G.I bills are now competing for votes. They are spearheaded by men of similar backgrounds and temperaments. For a year and a half, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) has championed a G.I. Bill targeted to veterans of wars waged after September 11th. The twenty-first Century G.I. Bill, as he has dubbed it, is intended to be a modern-day equivalent to the Second World War bill. If it were to pass, the federal government would, for eligible veterans, cover the full cost of state schools, directly match any veterans’ aid made by private colleges, and even throw in a considerable monthly housing stipend. But despite the bill’s fifty-seven cosponsors and bipartisan pedigree—Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and John Warner (R-VA) are among its most vocal supporters—its chance of being turned into law is mediocre at best.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and the Department of Defense, backed up by a presidential veto threat, have led the opposition. They argue that Webb’s bill would be too generous. The generosity of its benefits would drive down retention rates, and a military already stretched thin across the globe can hardly contemplate the prospect of soldiers departing en masse for the ivory tower. McCain has offered a hastily constructed bill in response, the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention and Readjustment Act. While not nearly as generous as Webb’s, it would represent an almost 50 percent increase in educational benefits for some soldiers who choose to remain enlisted.
To McCain, the Second World War analogy that Webb’s bill draws is precisely the problem. That war, after all, was fought by a massive conscripted army and ended with the unconditional surrender of the Axis. Today’s conflicts have no obvious endpoint and are being fought by a historically small group of volunteer professionals. In today’s military the retention of men and women who have already been trained in counterinsurgency is simply more important than any recruiting benefits that might come from aid increases. McCain and his bill’s proponents are adhering to a Rumsfeldian conception of the military, in which smaller, light fighting forces are preferable to a mass army. In part, this strategy is offered in deference to the absence of a draft. But it is also reflective of a belief in defense intellectual circles that smaller militaries are better designed to take on contemporary warfare.
By contrast, behind Webb’s thinking is his vision of the role that the military can play in building a progressive society. Born Fighting, his well-received history of the Scots-Irish people—of which he is a proud member—makes the case that, at least among the Scots-Irish, temporary military service is virtually a civic obligation. The key word is temporary; after fulfillment of such a duty, one may go off into private life. But the benefits of military service ought to follow. Indeed, Born Fighting asserts that elite military academies such as West Point have long served as a springboard for the Scots-Irish, many of whom grow up ruggedly poor, to the top tiers of American life. His bill offers an extension of that tradition. In Webb’s view, the government has an inherent debt to its soldiers that must be repaid.
McCain’s criticism of Webb’s bill is not supported by the Congressional Budget Office, which concluded that any decline in retention numbers under the Webb bill would be made up for by a concomitant increase in recruitment. The anticipated 16 percent drop in retention in the Webb bill would, according to the Congress Budget Office’s calculations, be compensated for by an equivalent 16 percent increase in recruitment.
But in McCain’s criticism of Webb something more is at work than what is best for those in the military. The progressive vision of warfare includes the hope that a mobilized nation will become a nation more attuned to notions of mutual responsibility. That is why Bill Clinton described the original G.I. Bill as Franklin Roosevelt’s “most enduring legacy.”
Once an exclusive province of the wealthy and pampered, higher education took on a new character when the 7.8 million veterans entered it through the G.I. Bill, and the veterans in turn changed the country. A 2002 study by Suzanne Mettler, of Syracuse University demonstrated that the original G.I. Bill played an essential role in the record levels of civic engagement that America witnessed in the 1950s. Returning soldiers who went to school on the G.I. Bill became politically active and joined various fraternal groups. Above all, the veterans did not adhere to the kind of cynicism about the government that the Republican Party relies on today when it appeals to voters.
Ethan Porter is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas