August 16, 2012

What We Owe A Professional Army

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.