I temporarily lose my ability to speak and write freely in about two weeks, so I am using what time I have left to stir up as much controversy as possible. Over Twitter two days ago and in my World Politics Review column yesterday, I broached a subject that might anger some of my fellow veterans.
When we talk about what we owe veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we immediately begin to talk about entitlements. The intellectual space devoted to veterans issues, in fact, is almost entirely filled by advocates. (Our research program at CNAS, I am happy to note, is exceptional in this regard.) But as much as I respect organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars -- I am a member, in fact, of both -- we rarely take a step back and ask the hard philosophical questions about service and entitlements.
The fact is that the military that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a military of conscripts like the ones that fought in our nation's previous wars. Each man and woman who has served in Iraq has volunteered and signed a labor contract to provide a service in exchange for compensation. Compensation is not the only thing that motivates servicemen, of course -- far from it -- but the terms of the initial contract are clear.
We Americans, I argue, need to decide whether or not military service is truly a service or whether, in the era of the all-volunteer force, it is a profession like many others in the federal government. Our decades-long inability to decide between these two poles has lead to an ambiguous situation in which we have lifted up our professional military onto a ridiculous praetorian pedestal. The example I always use is that of the uniformed military serviceman in peak physical condition being allowed to board an airplane before a mother with two small children. Every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan that I meet thinks this is ridiculous. But those kinds of no-cost perks are delivered along with a lot of very real and costly veterans benefits -- such as the new G.I. Bill -- given at a time when the rest of the country is making tremendous sacrifices. I write:
If the military is a service, then we can and should expect those who serve to do so humbly and for little reward, in exchange for the grateful thanks of their nation. We might provide compensatory benefits on the back end for the families of those killed and for those wounded or injured while serving. If the military is a profession, by contrast, then we should expect those who choose this profession to provide a contractually obligated service in exchange for pay and benefits.
Either way, the policy implications are the same. If veterans of a professional all-volunteer force have simply provided services to the public in exchange for compensation, then we veterans deserve the same benefits provided to other public servants -- no more, no less. If the military, by contrast, is a truly selfless service, than veterans should be among the first in these times of austerity to lead by example and accept fewer public benefits. At the very least, we should be helping that mother with kids onto the airplane ahead of us.
Anyway, read the whole thing. What I don't want to see is my fellow veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan become like the baby boomers -- spoiled and entitled, unwilling to either give up benefits or accept new taxes, and putting our own selfish desires over those of the greater good. That's not what I want my military service to be about.
Speaking of World Politics Review, subscribe here. My column ends next week, but if you've enjoyed my column, you'll likely be really excited to see who my replacement is.
P.S. Steve Walt wrote a post on Tuesday asking why no one was talking about Afghanistan. It's a question worth asking, and absent any real guidance from the campaign, I spent last week's WPR column trying to imagine what a Romney Administration's Afghanistan policy would look like.
I have been busy for the past several days and have neglected the blog. I had meant to cross-post this Victoria Fontan offering, for example, on Carl Prine's blog but will instead link to it here and recommend you all read it.
I also want to give some space for a guest post from Joel Smith and Mike Stinetorf*, who work on our "Joining Forces" initiative here at CNAS. As these two guys have worked on issues related to active-duty servicemen veterans, they have run up against the question of what, exactly, we should call veterans of these recent campaigns and want some feedback from this blog's readership. Take it away, guys.
The U.S. military mission in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan (our involvement, anyway) is scheduled to end in 2014. As we transition out of the longest war in U.S. history, it is clear many questions remain, including the legacy of those who are serving during this period. What is not clear, however, is what we should call these individuals.
What do we call “the other 1%?” Is there an appropriate term for those who currently serve?
The most obvious place to look would be to the military itself. But, in an institution that prides itself on using more than its fair share of jargon, the military has a plethora of terms to describe its people: service members, service men and women, soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coasties, uniformed personnel, warriors, wounded warriors, warfighters, troops, grunts, officers, NCOs, commanders and the list goes on. Throw in a little civilian vernacular, and you get terms such as “hero.”
The media uses these terms interchangeably, often without knowing their meanings. “Troops” is perhaps the most over-used of them all; it seems neither the American public nor the media know the true meaning of the word, which refers to Army enlisted. There is an on-going debate regarding the usage of the term “hero;” the President used it (as well as “troops” and “men and women in uniform”) in his most recent State of the Union address. “Warrior” is also not a word that meets with common understanding or approval, and some in uniform do not believe they are warriors.
When we talk about the military community at large, what do we call the OEF/OIF era service member? Is “service member” sufficient and accurate albeit a bit bulky? Is “hero” an inclusive term or reserved for those who have performed extraordinary acts in uniform? Who or what is a “warfighter,” or a “warrior?” Do we differentiate between those who participate in combat and those who serve in other ways during a time of war? Is there an accurate word that journalists and historians can and should use to get it right?
As we attempt to understand this era and these wars, addressing these basic questions should be done with dignity, respect and perhaps above all else, accuracy.
*Joel is the son of a chaplain in the U.S. Army and has the good sense to date a girl from East Tennessee. Mike served as a U.S. Marine in Iraq and recently graduated from Dartmouth College. He was played by this dude on television.
The very first time I got worked up about a defense policy issue and made a stink about it in public concerned the misguided stop-loss policy. The U.S. government, though, has now authorized special payments to those of you who were affected by this policy. Now listen carefully: You have ONE MORE MONTH to file your claim. (I'm looking at you, Flash.) Please do so. Get your money, because, if nothing else, C.R.E.A.M. (Dollar, dollar bills, y'all.)
I have a lot of love for the hard-working people at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, but when Foreign Policy asked me what parts of the government should shut down and stay shut down, I offered the following:
[As] veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam depart this Earth, we are likely to be left with a much smaller group of veterans who, thanks to the life-saving technologies developed prior to and during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, might need less care in terms of quantity but more specialized care. So it might make sense to get rid of the old brick-and-mortar VA of the 20th century and replace it with something more akin to an HMO that allows veterans of this generation to make use of the best care available to them in our nation's private health care system.
I owe a big intellectual debt of gratitude here to my friend Phil Carter, I should add, as it was in conversations with him that I came around to thinking this way. Feel free to tell me why I am wrong in the comments.
Update: There are some great and feisty comments below, so be sure to check them out. I should clarify that I do not think the entire Dept. of Veterans Affairs should go away but that it should look a lot different in 2051 than it does in 2011. I actually think the Dept. of Veterans Affairs is a great organization filled with dedicated public servants. But as the demographics of our veterans population changes, so too should the VA.
Update II: I've been going back and forth with Alex "Army of Dude" Horton over Twitter, and he provides some good statistics (.pdf) showing the way in which the number of living veterans are expected to decline from now until 2036. I see this data as confirming my belief that the VA of 2051 has to look different than it does today. But I am hardly a hard-liner on this. I suspect you can make a good argument for why some specialized care should remain in place.
Update III: Again, some really great comments. Here are two I largely agreed with, but read them all. The fact that this post has generated so many great comments -- both criticizing me for being a bourgeois to understand the condition of most veterans and lending supporting fire to my contention that the VA needs to adapt and evolve -- offers the best counterargument to those who would argue this blog should not tackle these issues!
Look, today's VA provides *fantastic* care to the ~23m veterans in the U.S.
But tomorrow's population of veterans will look different from today's population of veterans. The future veterans population will be smaller, more diverse, more diffuse, and more likely to place increased demands on the VA. How does tomorrow's VA meet the needs of this population?
So the question is how the VA should adapt its 20th Century infrastructure for the 21st Century -- and beyond. One way is to continue embracing Community-Based Outpatient Clinics. Another is to revamp its hospitals, mirroring innovation in the private healthcare sector, to embrace outpatient and specialty care, and push primary care out to centers like the CBOCs. A third is to continue innovating in the benefits and records areas, including the new joint DoD-VA medical record. A fourth is to streamline and improve the ways VA allows care in the private sector, especially to help veterans who don't live near a VA facility. And there are many other ways the VA can and should continue to innovate.
The end state should be a VA that serves the needs of veterans (and their families). But to do that successfully, tomorrow's VA can't rest on the laurels of today. It needs to aggressively question its assumptions, structure, and model, and figure out the best way to continue caring for those who have borne the nation's battles.
A 21st century VA needs to take into acct the nature of the modern day force. An all-volunteer force means that a disproportionate number are Reserve and Guard who come home to civilian communities and families, not to bases or installations, certainly not to federal agencies. For this reason and many others, a 21st century VA needs to meet veterans "where they're at" (to parapharase an old community-organizing adage) and recognize, uphold and invest in the best, most efficacious, most accountable community-based providers out there. I'm not calling for the abolishment of the VA; I'm suggesting a new model that recognizes the shortcomings of federal bureacracies, and capitalizes on the competencies of smaller community-based providers, through implementation of a public-private partnership approach. Think small-scale HMO in which a veteran can make choices (one of which is to get services where and when they're needed, and not wait three weeks for an appt).
A start wold be vetting critiera: VA should recognize veteran serving orgs NOT because Congress chartered them 40 years ago but because they meet rigorous and robust criteria for meeting the real needs of veterans today. Second, enage those providers in bona fide contracts that hold them to standards of service and accountabilty. Third, provide funding so that services can be delivered swiftly and adequately. Fourth, evaluate and revisit steps 1-3 regualry, so that a new standard for excellence in the provision of care and services to veterans is consisently upheld.
I just want to say, in all seriousness, that I am very proud my employer is partnering with the White House and Gen. Stan McChrystal in a new initiative in support of military families. This is a great and worthy project, and it's initiatives like these that remind me why I enjoy working for a think tank led by two veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
*There is a small but intense contingent of staff at CNAS who like Bud Light Lime, and if you were to draw a Venn Diagram of "CNAS Staff Who Drink Bud Light Lime at CNAS Social Functions" and "CNAS Staff Who Drink Diet Mountain Dew The Rest of the Day" you would see an almost total overlap. Horrifying, I know.
Again, these are a busy few days for me, so posting will be light. But I want to sound off on three things, quickly.
1. I was not too angry about the fact that the United States is conducting clandestine operations in Libya. Frankly, I support liaising with the rebels (though not arming them), and I also support observing air strikes. Air strikes are generally more effective at doing what you want them to do -- and not doing what you do not want them to do, like kill civilians -- when they are observed. What makes me mad is the inability of officials to understand that clandestine operations are no longer clandestine after you blab about them to Mark Mazetti and Eric Schmitt. Now, if officials in the administration leaked this information as part of a carefully planned, tightly coordinated information operation designed to hasten Gadhafi's departure from Libya, I take back all my criticism and indeed salute the administration. If, by contrast, this information was leaked because of domestic political pressure and in response to complaints the administration was not doing enough to support the rebels, then I know of a circle of hell Dante forgot in which the leakers will someday find themselves residing. These kinds of leaks -- which involve disclosing the presence and activities of men in harm's way -- are the kind that make me want to run around Washington, DC kicking "officials" in their sensitive parts.
2. I got the opportunity, on Tuesday night, to address some of the veterans in town to lobby the Congress on behalf of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I want to salute the great work this organization is doing, and I encourage you all to support it as you see fit.
3. The Elite Eight Round of Twitter Fight Club resulted in yours truly advancing to the Final Four in a match-up with Glenn Greenwald, a man who has, like, more followers on Twitter than Charlie Sheen. So instead of a Twitter Fight, I am suggesting this as a way of settling our semi-final match-up. (It's a game of honor and diplomacy.) No word yet from the tournament officials if this is okay.
I was home on block leave one year and in the Kinko's on Brainerd Road when this old man walked past me wearing a hat that read "Congressional Medal of Honor Society." With a high degree of trepidation, I asked him if he was, indeed, a recipient of the Medal of Honor. He said that he was and that he was just making some photocopies of his commendation for folks who had written to him requesting a copy. That was how I met Desmond T. Doss, who saved 75 men at Okinawa. Now buried in the Chattanooga National Cemetery just a few rows down from another Okinawa veteran, my grandfather, Doss was profiled in today's Washington Times. An incredible story of bravery and faith:
On the morning the assault was launched, Desmond suggested to his platoon leader, Lieutenant Goronto, that the men say a prayer. “I believe prayer is the best life saver there is,” he said. “The men should really pray before going up.”
“Fellows, come over here and gather around,” the lieutenant said, “Doss wants to pray for us.” Actually, Desmond had meant that each man should observe his own moment of prayer, but the men of the unit humored him and stood by while Desmond read a passage from his Bible. Then they set about their grim business.
According to one participant, the assault on Maeda Escarpment was “all hell rolled into one.” It was seven days and nights of bitter struggle with rifles, bayonets, hand grenades, knives and fists. The men of Desmond’s battalion advanced to the top eight times, and each time they were driven back by furious Japanese counterassaults. But the ninth assault held, and the ridge was taken, yet at a terrible cost. The battalion had arrived on April 29 with 800 men; a week later, there were 324 left standing.
Desmond was in the thick of things throughout, the only medic assigned to the attack. As the battle line shifted across the top of the escarpment, Desmond stayed behind, retrieving wounded men in the face of enemy fire. He carried them to the edge of the escarpment and lowered them one by one on a litter suspended from a rope. Others who were too badly wounded to move he treated on the spot, sometimes within yards of enemy-held caves. Officers motioned for Desmond to come off the ridge but he refused. Throughout the brutal assault, when wounded soldiers cried “Medic,” Desmond Doss came.
Pfc. Doss continued his heroic actions through the battle on Okinawa, suffering numerous wounds. On May 21, during a night attack, he was giving aid to wounded soldiers when a grenade landed nearby and seriously wounded his legs. Five hours later, litter bearers came to rescue him, but on the way to an aid station they were attacked by an enemy tank and Desmond gave his place in the litter to a more seriously wounded troop. While awaiting help, he was wounded in the arm by a sniper, and knowing he could not stay any longer on the battlefield, he fashioned a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to safety. The men of his unit, who had thought Desmond was dead, wept when they saw him return.
The stories that go along with these moving sketches remind us of the human cost of war. This is a great series.
Veterans Day is approaching, and I wanted to post two quick links that all you Iraq and Afghanistan veterans should check out. The first is the new blog at Veterans Affairs, written in part by mil-blogger extraordinaire Alex Horton of Army of Dude fame. Good on the VA for hiring a young veteran to reach out to we internet natives who have fought since 2001. The second link is to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization that my friend Paul Rieckhoff has grown into a pretty awesome voice for we veterans of the wars on evil-doers. I've just been impressed with the way in which Paul has built up a grass-roots organization to support his fellow veterans without letting it get compromised by the politics of the Right or Left. As soon as my lazy a$$ manages to scan my DD 214, I'm going to complete my own application and join. They're planning something called an online Veterans Day March which you can check out, but I think you have to join Facebook to participate, and that's just a bridge too far for me. (Sorry, Paul.)
On 11 September 2001, as I was at Fort Drum, New York, trying to get my light infantry platoon ready to deploy to war, a young girl in southern California vowed to her mother that she would one day "serve her country" in the military. I got to know both mother and daughter after leaving the U.S. Army, and I am as proud as I could possibly be to congratulate that "young girl", Janell Peske, on her graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy today. Janell graduates with a degree in Arabic, something unthinkable 10 years ago, and even took a year to study in Jordan, which just goes to show you how far the service academies have come since 2001.
I remember when I was commissioned, 10 years ago this week at the Union Club of Philadelphia, and as I talk to Janell and other young lieutenants, I cannot help but think this newest crop of officers is immeasurably better prepared for what they are getting into than I ever was. As we head into Memorial Day weekend, we should give thanks not only for those who have fallen on the field of honor but for all the simply amazing young men and women who continue to volunteer to serve in and officer our armed forces. They continue to be the very best of us, and just as it was an honor to have walked alongside them for a few years in an otherwise misspent youth, I am deeply humbled by their sense of duty and sacrifice as well as the seriousness with which they take the most important job you could ever give to a 21-year old.
Semper Fidelis, 2nd. Lt. Peske. And thank you -- and all the other newly commissioned officers out there -- for your service.