This week, observers of American politics had several opportunities to compare different political approaches toward military personnel and veterans. First, a bill paying full tuition at any public university for those who have served in the military for three or more years since 2001 was overwhelmingly passed by Congress despite President Bush's threat of a veto. And second, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote an essay for the upcoming issue of Joint Force Quarterly admonishing soldiers to refrain from expressing political opinions.
If "supporting the troops" means anything at all, it means respecting soldiers as individuals and as citizens, not simply as instruments of war. Speaking of fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Bush said that "the United States is blessed to have such citizens." But actions speak louder than words, and the president has promised to veto the new G.I. bill because it is expected to lower the rate of reenlistment (even though it would offset that by increasing the initial enlistment rate).
In other words, because soldiers who finish their service would be given the opportunity to go to college for free, fewer would choose to return to service in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.
Bush and Republican presumptive presidential nominee John McCain would prefer that soldiers not have that choice. They would prefer, in other words, that financial considerations trap lower-income people in the military. It's difficult to reconcile that position with their constant pledges of support for the troops.
The heart of Bush and McCain's concern about giving more opportunities to recent veterans was expressed in a Vietnam-era antiwar slogan: "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" Suppose Bush and McCain wanted to continue wasting dollars and lives fighting an unwinnable war in Iraq—but too many soldiers decided that they would rather get an education than return to once again risk their lives for
Slowly but surely, the chest-thumping rhetoric about "supporting the troops" is being exposed for what it is: a veil for indefensible policies. The real way to support the troops is to support individual servicepeople by paying them more and expanding their post-service opportunities, fighting only those very rare wars that are both just and wise, and refraining from asking young people to give their lives to lost causes such as the Iraq fiasco.
It also means treating soldiers as equal citizens with a full right to political speech. Mullen's essay, which essentially tells soldiers to shut up and follow orders, represents an attempt to squelch citizens' political speech. It also asks the impossible.
"The U.S. military must remain apolitical at all times and in all ways," he writes. But wartime strategy, the conduct of soldiers in the field, the testimony of officers before Congress, and the competing displays of Memorial Day patriotism by presidential candidates are all inextricably connected parts of the political fabric.
Mullen himself has opined that "vital interests in the region and in Iraq require a pragmatic, long-term commitment that will be measured in years, not months"—hardly an apolitical statement. And over Memorial Day weekend, when President Bush and John McCain followed the tried-and-true Republican formula of seamlessly
integrating praise of the courage of soldiers with expressions of continued support for the occupation of Iraq, there was nothing apolitical about their statements.
If the military were suffused with open political debate, sooner or later difficult questions would surface: Is the occupation of Iraq making America or the world safer? Does it make sense to say that the ever-increasing death toll in the Iraq conflict is "a solemn reminder of the cost of freedom," as President Bush asserted on Memorial Day?
Is it best for an individual soldier to reenlist and return to Iraq for a fourth or fifth tour, or use the G.I. bill to get a college education?
Both Mullen's essay and the Bush-McCain opposition to the new G.I. bill are about denying resources to soldiers. The first is about denying them information and political voice; the second is about denying them economic and educational opportunities.
It's time to clarify what it means to support the troops. Instead of being allowed to hide behind slogans and patriotic imagery, President Bush and John McCain should be forced to explain why they oppose expanding opportunities for individual soldiers and veterans.