Webb on Civil-Military Relations
Sen. Jim Webb has been skirmishing in the battles over American civil-military relations since he came home from Vietnam and became an outspoken member of his generation of combat veterans. Through his novels, work with veterans groups, and, eventually, his political activity, Webb led the charge against those who attacked Vietnam vets and those who opposed a strong military and muscular foreign policy.
Webb has matured and moderated his style somewhat, and his views have evolved a great deal over the past 30 years. Today, he sees America's political parties through a different prism: that of the Iraq war his son served in. And he sees relations with the military differently.
On Meet the Press yesterday, host Tim Russert quoted from Webb's new book and Webb had this to say about the political parties, the war and the Bush administration's stance on S.22, the Webb GI Bill legislation:
RUSSERT: It is interesting in reading your description of the political parties as we look at this upcoming presidential campaign and their defense policy postures. You say, "The Democrats who came of age during the Vietnam era, and many others who've grown up under their tutelage, have erred greatly for many years in not understanding the positive aspects of military service. And in doing so, in the eyes of those who've served, the Democrats became not simply the anti-war party, but also the anti-military party ...
"This legacy is still with the Democratic Party today. Like a boil that must be lanced, it needs to be examined before it can be overcome."
And for the Republicans you say this: "The Republican Party ... continually seeks to politicize military service for its own ends even as it uses their sacrifices as a political shield against criticism for its failed policies. And in that sense, it is now the Republican Party that most glaringly does not understand the true nature of military service." Explain that.
WEBB: I, I, obviously, strongly believe that's true. I've lived the journey. I grew up in a family that was principally Democratic Party leaning, and, like a lot of people, the Reagan Democrats, if you would, drifted away from the Democratic Party because of the positions that they had taken, not simply on the Vietnam War, but the way--the way that the veterans were being treated. Democrats tended to treat veterans, even after the Vietnam War, as victims rather than as affirmative figures. They wanted to fix this problem, they wanted to fix that problem. They want to go to Agent Orange, they want to go to post-traumatic stress. And all those things are laudable, but they don't go to the core meaning of why you serve. And the Republican Party was the beneficiary of that for a long period of time. But we've seen a, a reverse here, and I think the G.I. bill that I introduced gives you something of a microcosm in which to understand that. I, I introduced this G.I. bill my first day in office. The idea was to give to people who'd been serving since 9/11 the same educational benefits, the same right to a first-class future as those who served in World War II. We, we started working hard on this bipartisan, nonpartisan, hopefully; we have now got 58 sponsors in the Senate, 300 sponsors in the House of Representatives, and a, and a good number of the, you know, the thinking Republicans have moved to us.
And now the president says he's going to veto this bill. No president in history has, has vetoed a, a benefits bill for those who've served. So on the one hand, we have this rhetoric, which goes to what I was writing saying, "This is the next greatest generation, these guys are so great." And then we see this president, he's fine with sending these people over and over again where they're spending more time in Iraq than they are at home. He's fine with the notion of stop loss, where we can, we can make people stay in even after enlistments are done. And then we say, "Give them the same benefit that the people in World War II have," and they say it's too expensive. So I think the Republican Party is, you know, is, is on the block here to, to clearly demonstrate that they value military service or suffer the consequences of losing the support of people who've, who've served.
RUSSERT: The Pentagon, the administration and other editorials across the country have said the problem with the bill is that if, after three years people can leave with full benefits, it'll be very difficult to retain good soldiers, to have them re-enlist.
WEBB: Well, I, I would say to them that three years of accumulated service qualify you for the benefits, but you still have to serve your enlistment. I spent five years in the Pentagon--one as a Marine, four as a defense executive. I did manpower issues the whole time; I know how these formulas work. We have, as co-sponsors on this bill, John Warner, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee; Carl Levin, current chairman of the Armed Services committee; Chairman Akaka of the Veterans committee; Senator Specter, former chairman of the, the Veterans committee; Chuck Hagel, the only senator to have served as a senior official in the Veterans Administration. We know what we're doing and, and we are not going to harm the military.
What you have is 70 to 75 percent of the ground troops in the, in the Army, in the Marine Corps, have left the service by the end of their first enlistment. And those are the people that are not being taken care of. The Department of Defense does a very good job of taking care of the, the career force, but this large number of people, the overwhelming majority of people who are out of the military, that come in because they love their country, they do a hitch and then they want to get on with their lives, they are not getting the opportunity for a first-class future that they deserve.
RUSSERT: Will this bill, you think, if the president vetoes it, be an issue in the campaign? The presidential campaign?
WEBB: I, I would say the president really has a choice here and--to, to show how much he values military service. And if he were to veto this bill, I can't see how it would not become an issue in the campaign. What we want to do is get a bill--and I've been, I've been trying to keep the politics out of it. I've working--been working really hard to keep the politics out of it. We want to get a bill where Democrats and Republicans can come together. And I've, I've listened to all the veterans' organizations, I've, I've listened to other members of Congress and, and made modifications in this bill, and I think it's a very fair bill.
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