Thoughts on the New G.I. Bill

This is probably old news to you, but the military is panicking over Jim Webb’s new G.I. Bill — which aims to increase educational benefits for veterans.

“Why would anybody stay for another deployment when they can go out on a four-year free ride, with guaranteed rent and utilities at the E-5 standard, which by long-standing DoD policy is a two-bedroom townhouse?”

Given current conflicts, this official continued, even volunteers who like service life might decide “to sit out for a year or two, in a large rented townhouse, and come back when things are more hospitable.”

So what’s going on here? The military wants the military to be a career force. Webb wants it to be something slightly different.

Defense officials have to understand, Webb said, that a volunteer military is “only a career system to a certain point.” The current system isn’t properly rewarding those who enter “because of love of country, or family tradition, or the fact that they just want to serve for a while,” he said.

The services, he said, “have got 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.”

Webb declined to describe either demographic group in more detail.

I imagine that what Webb has in mind is that Scots-Irish whites from military families in the South and West, his people, are overrepresented, and that he’d like to see more Americans from other backgrounds, particularly upper-middle-class Americans but also black Americans (where recruiting has dipped shortly, in part due to the unpopularity of the Iraq war), sign up. He has an essentially social goal he’d like to achieve, one shared by many centrists who want to see a more public-spirited, service-oriented society.

I am very sympathetic to increasing educational, medical, housing, and other benefits for veterans. But I also think the military is right in thinking that a career force is more effective than a force designed to achieve a social goal. My gut instinct would be to back the bill, but not to let it max out after 36 months — keep increasing the benefit over time served. Maybe. I have no settled opinions. Actually, I hardly ever have settled opinions.