Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The G.I. Bill and the veteran gap in CMR studies

A few weeks ago I wrote a post disdainful of a new reality show that I felt was taking advantage of America's current love affair with its veterans. That same week, friend-of-the-blog Andrew Exum wrote his weekly column at World Politics Review on the unhealthy and dysfunctional relationship  between the American people and its military. The crux of the problem, as Exum sees it, is that too many Americans engage in hero-worship with regard to its military instead of dispassionately examining the society's transactional responsibilities to an all-volunteer force. This is an important issue that should be addressed, but I think the answer should be different than the one Exum comes to.

Exum compares the war zone risks and compensation of soldiers to diplomats, aid workers, and civilian contractors (his conclusion is that all of these have the same risks, but the military enjoys much better compensation) before posing the following option on the nature of the military: is it a public service or is it a profession? The former would limit military compensation to that of similar public services such as police officers. The latter would limit compensation to a contractual situation more similar to the private sector, which by my interpretation means that benefits afforded the military but do not have a private sector equivalent are probably in excess of what the contract should entail. Obviously, the U.S. has come to a hybrid solution to this problem since the advent of the all-volunteer force. The question then is how to compensate the military under this solution. This is where I think there are some flaws in Exum's analysis of civil-military relations.

Fundamentally, military service is not like other public services in one significant way. Yes, other forms of public service entail risk to individuals' lives, limbs, and eyesight. However, the functional imperative of military service is to inflict violence upon our enemies and this is unique to the military (the functional utility of the military, i.e., SFA, HA/DR, etc, is not the same as its functional imperative). This is true of military service whether you're a cook or an infantryman - the latter may use force much more often but the cook is trained and expected to at times as well (in other words, I don't buy this load of nonsense on two societies within the military). Police forces may be authorized to use force in the execution of their functional imperative (maintain law and order), but it is not their primary or most desired tool. USAID workers are exposed to the same (or at least similar) risks and traumas as soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, but society not only does not expect them to inflict risks and traumas upon others, society forbids them from doing so by law.  This is not an insignificant difference in service as anyone who has had his enemy in his weapon's sights can tell you. So how do we compensate for this?

Before we begin to answer that question, we need to examine two more aspects of military service and civil-military relations. The first is the issue of professionalism and the two societies that do indeed bifurcate the military: officers and enlisted. For this, Samuel Huntington, in "The Solider and the State", a work that Exum himself called the canonical text on civil-military relations (and he's right), uses the term "professional" in a sociological sense (not in the "I do this well for a paycheck" sense): a vocation that requires expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. In Huntington's construct officers are professionals and enlisted are not according to the definitions he provides (which are much more involved than standard dictionary definitions - please read this section of the book before berating me for being an officer snob). Enlisted personnel are more like skilled craftsmen. There is a lot of merit to this argument, particularly around UCMJ authorities and the different education systems for officers and NCOs (although NCOs have made a lot ground in the past couple of decades in this regard). This important distinction is manifest in combat duties: officers are responsible for the management of violence and enlisted personnel are responsible for the acts of violence. Of course officers often pull triggers and enlisted NCOs independently manage violence, but these acts are borne of necessity on the battlefield and not their inherent responsibilities within the organization. The point of this discussion is that while military service is different public service because of the responsibility to commit acts of violence, society only expects enlisted personnel to commit those acts of violence. This must be a factor in calculating compensation for this unique public service.

The final issue we need to examine here is civil-military relations as it relates to veterans. Frankly, there is no "The Veteran and the State" (although I'd love to take a stab at it - hint, hint publishers...) to guide how society interacts with its veterans because of their previous military service. "The Solider and the State" deals almost exclusively with the interactions of the civilian government (and in a couple of places civilian society) and the military's officer corps. It was also written before our modern, all-volunteer force. Yet as it remains the capstone doctrine of civil-military relations, Huntington is our only guide.  We must infer civil-veteran relations based on our understanding of the nature of military service and how the military interacts with society. But that extrapolation can be difficult.

We have already established that the functional imperative of military forces is to exact violence on the country's behalf. We have an understanding of how civilian control, military expertise, and transactions between the two parties work in order to optimize military effectiveness for society. But we have no idea who owes what once these skilled craftsmen of violence are no longer in the military. Their very unique individual functional imperative for society no longer exists for them individually and their skills can translate very poorly to civilian society. Should society not be responsible for helping these men and women to essentially reprogram their functional imperative into an function that aids society in new ways? To reintroduce them into society where risks may exist, but the need to commit violent acts is not? Yes, they volunteered for this unique service, but military personnel cannot stay in service indefinitely (up or out!) or even until a natural retirement age in their 60s. Society does owe these men and women something to retrain them to again be useful to society.

The G.I. Bill is the most obvious example of reintroduction benefits for veterans.  Alex Horton of the Department of Veterans affairs wrote an excellent article this week in The Atlantic about the challenges of going to college after being in an Army at war. Horton focuses his article on the differences between war veterans and the "traditional" students who comprise the majority of the university body. But when I read his piece I was struck by how similar these two seemingly disparate groups are. They are starting from different points in life with different challenges, but they are all forging their minds and identities in ways that will define (in part) who they are and what they will do with the rest of their lives. In other words, how they will be useful to society for the remainder of their professional, productive lives. College is a moderately safe environment to acclimate to American society, for both 18 year-old kids and 32 year-old combat veterans. After what we've asked these service men and women to do - to commit acts of violence on our behalf - providing the opportunity to reintegrate into society in this way is a small price to pay to erase their previous utility (which obviously has no place in civilian society - and we should note that erasing utility is not the same as not recognizing their previous service) and create new utility, even if these types of benefits should not be unlimited. I'd rather it happen on the taxpayer's dime in a university setting than on the streets of some city.

And yet the G.I. Bill is a benefit that Exum seems to think should not be given to military veterans because no other public servants have the same benefit. As discussed, different service merits different benefits. Should the G.I. Bill be more limited than it is now? Probably, but not based on whether the veteran is a general's kid or not. Instead it should be freely given to our enlisted veterans - those whose purpose to society was violence - in order to reintegrate them into society. Former officers probably do not need it as their societal function was not committing acts of violence. They also probably do not need the G.I. Bill because they all already have a bachelor's degree, have more tangible civilian skills, and are at a social level that often negates the need for this type of societal reintegration.  The distinction is a bit academic of course, but we have little else from which to base our sense of fairness when determining the terms of compensation transactions.

With looming austerity all military benefits and compensation should be under scrutiny. Some benefits may decrease for future service members and veterans, remembering that our society has a contract with current members and veterans. When the public and our government examine these benefits in this understudied area of civil-military relations, they need to remember that military service is an unique form of public service that has no place in society after soldiers and Marines depart military service. They need to remember that the transactional costs and benefits are not just about fairness to the veteran, but the effects on society as a whole. Alex Horton and those he discusses in his article will most likely benefit personally from a G.I. Bill-funded degree. But society also benefits from paying for that degree because Alex Horton and his cohorts will probably be better integrated into society because of it. This is not about hero worship or praetorian guards. Veterans benefits are about taking care of individuals who fulfill a unique role in society and ensuring that they are able to provide new, useful roles to society.

1 comment:

  1. It would be interesting to explore the way that "veterans" are viewed and treated as a opposed to the "military." The most obvious difference for me was when I went to the bar with my dad. When I am active, people buy me drinks. As a veteran, not so much.

    Beyond that (and more importantly), it would be interesting to understand how advocacy for veterans benefits (GI Bill, jobs, etc.) affects military policy. I know veterans think of themselves as very distinct from those who currently serve. The rest of the country doesn't see it that way, probably because there are still so few who do serve (because the military is small, not because everyone is afraid or doesn't want to join).