Richard Reeves

The True Shame of the Iraq War

WASHINGTON -- This is what I thought was the American social contract when I was growing up in the land of the free and the home of the brave: You could work your way through college, and if you got a decent job, you could buy a house within a few years.

And, you deserved a bit more if you served in the military: money or loans for college and something of a break on mortgage loans. The point goes beyond the danger of military service; the important fact is that you deserve something more than being underpaid if you give up two or more years of your life while your peers are working on careers, beginning families, or getting educations that will pay dividends for life.

That's the way it was for me, and I think kids today deserve the same. I could earn enough for college working summers and part-time; the military (Air Force ROTC) paid some of the bills. I got a job as an engineer for Ingersoll-Rand, and six years after graduation, with a little help from my parents, I was able to buy a small house on a lake in New Jersey.

Now, of course, college is more expensive -- as a father of five I have seen those costs rise faster than the cost of oil -- and houses in metropolitan areas are often more than young families can afford. That bothers me, a lot; it is a failure of the American way. But that bother is nothing compared with the screwing the government is giving to the young men and women serving in harm's way in Iraq.

Whatever one thinks of the war and the officials who planned it, those soldiers and reservists out there deserve more than moral support. My stomach literally turned when I read this paragraph in The New York Times last Thursday morning:

"President Bush is threatening to veto a bill that would pay tuition and other expenses at a four-year public university for anyone who has served in the military for three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A main reason is that it would hasten an exodus from the ranks."

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it this way: "Serious retention issues could arise."

I bet they could. And should. The war is being fought by a tiny percentage of the American people, and many of their lives are being ruined. You want a war, Mr. President? Then ask Congress to declare one. You want soldiers to be retained? Then ask for a draft. You want to support our boys and girls? Then support their education as other presidents and Congresses have done since the passage of the great GI Bill of Rights during World War II -- legislation that is still benefiting this country.

What is being done to our troops in Iraq is more than a failure of political leadership; it is an outrage. Forget the fact that we never declared war, or that we never had a real plan about what to do in Iraq, or that we are fighting on credit, leaving the bills for our children and grandchildren. Remember that only a small number are involved in this -- the same people, professionals and reservists, are being called back into harm's way again and again.

Those young men and women, serving a government without the guts to even talk about a draft, are essentially indentured servants. Worse. At least indentured servants knew when their obligation would be over. This is more than unfair; it is shameful, a stain on the democracy and its leaders. And now the president is considering depriving them of a reward they deserve because some of them might actually take it and not re-enlist.

This is a professional army? There was a time when troops treated that way, no matter how well-trained or equipped, were called cannon fodder. We owe them. The president whose ignorance put them in the Middle East owes them. The Congress, which is ever looking the other way and has not declared war on anyone since 1941, owes them.

This war is not worthy of a free country. And unless we do something for the young people bravely taking the punishment for the failings of their elders, we have no right to claim this is a land of the free.

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