Where Bush Draws the Line on Iraq Costs: Education Benefits for Veterans

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The Waco Tribune-Herald

Where Bush Draws the Line on Iraq Costs: Education Benefits for Veterans

by
John Young

In Jurassic Park, the favorite line of the theme park's mastermind is, "Spared no expense."

But, of course, he did.

He staffed it with a skeletal crew. He gave barely a nod to the catastrophic potential of cloning dinosaurs.

I don't know about you, but that movie reminds me of what's happened in Iraq. "Spared no expense."

But, of course, we did.

For many months, U.S. personnel pleaded for body armor and for vehicles that would give them a chance against road-side bombs.

The thing is, Donald Rumsfeld didn't have to give his trademark poverty-case plea, "You have to go to war with the Army you have."

This military engagement -- America's second costliest in real dollars -- has had scant cost controls. And why should it? It's been waged off-budget, and essentially on credit.

It's only when people return from battle that we become sticklers for decimal points.

Such is the case in Congress right now with debate over veterans benefits contained in a supplemental bill to fund what we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Too expensive? Ahem

President Bush has threatened to use his rarely flexed veto pen against this measure if it contains a bipartisan expansion of the GI Bill of Rights and other veterans benefits.

Bush says the benefits package shouldn't be tied to supplemental military funding. And he says it costs too much: $51 billion over 10 years. That sounds expensive, yes. That is, if you stand it up beside the Tyrannosaurus that is the supplemental bill for Iraq and Afghanistan: $195 billion for not even one whole budget year.

By contrast we're talking about $2 billion a year for veterans who have laid it on the line for what's adding up as a $2 trillion enterprise.

The bipartisan "New G.I. Bill" legislation authored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., would nearly double current benefits for college, tying them to cost of living and in-state tuition rates.

It also would end a $1,200 buy-in enrollment fee under current GI Bill.

Sen. John McCain has sided with the president in opposing it. Although he supports increasing education aid, McCain says this is too expensive.

But an interesting wrinkle is that much of the debate is about time, not money. Principally, the Webb bill would grant full benefits after three years in service. The Pentagon, with McCain agreeing, says it doesn't want full benefits to kick in until six years of service.

The Pentagon said that setting it at three years would result in personnel leaving at that point. Proponents, including a coalition of service organizations, say any attrition would be offset by recruits drawn by the new benefits.

If the original GI Bill required a six-year military commitment for full benefits, this nation never would have seen the benefits that produced so many college graduates who populated the "greatest generation." They went to war in 1941. They came home in 1945.

Not only did they reap great benefits from the GI Bill, so did the nation. In a strictly fiduciary sense, for dollars returned, it was possibly the best-spent wad of money in America's history. So, excuse some groups such as the American Legion for choosing not to place a new GI Bill in the "expense" category. They see it as an investment.

For those who insist on calling it a cost, American Legion National Commander Marty Conatser says this: "War is expensive indeed and the bulk of that is paid for by the men and women who bear the uniform. Benefits are just a small, small cost of war."

Costofwar.com estimates that the United States spends $341.4 million per day in Iraq. We'll spend more there this week there than the New GI Bill would cost us in a year.

Costs? The man from the American Legion has a point. It's the men and women in uniform, and the Iraqis, who have borne the cost of this horror. We've been on a theme-park ride.

--John Young

Copyright 2008 Waco Tribune-Herald

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