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Liberals and Veterans: Welcome Back

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Sunday's "Meet the Press" ended with a quick plea from its host, almost an afterthought following an hour-long interview with Sen. Barack Obama: "As we leave you this Veterans Day, we honor all men and women who've served, and remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country." Roll credits.

What did not make the actual program, or just about any program, was the question of why veterans and their families are virtually the only Americans being required to make any sacrifices for the folly of this administration in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, to say nothing of why our allegedly pro-military president and his administration are so unwilling to honor, in any manner save rhetorically, the men and women who serve our country in uniform.

Clearly many veterans who have identified as conservatives since the Vietnam War are now moving rapidly leftward. The vacuum at the center of the Bush administration's mistreatment of them, both on the battlefield and once they return home, creates an opportunity for progressives to have their voices heard by an audience previously closed off to them. Each passing scandal makes it even more clear that its time for liberalism to reclaim its natural duty to engage in what Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne calls "G.I. Bill politics."

When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill in 1944, he committed the U.S. government to offering returning veterans college tuition and fees, textbooks, and a stipend, along with unemployment benefits and job counseling, in return for the service they rendered the nation. These veterans, FDR explained, "have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems."

Now scroll forward to the Bush administration. Today finds veterans still holding up their end of the bargain, but the country has sold them woefully short. President Bush has quietly slashed veterans benefits over the next decade by $29 billion, leaving them to languish in a system that demands that they wait weeks or months for mental health care and other appointments, fall into debt as VA case managers study disability claims over many months, and hire help from outside experts just to understand the VA's arcane system of rights and benefits.

In one all-too representative case reported on by Newsweek, a soldier who was severely wounded by flying shrapnel from a mortar explosion on his base, and who even received a bedside visit from President Bush, saw his school-teacher mother take a second job flipping burgers at McDonald's to help support him while he waited for treatment. Even worse, fully 200,000 veterans have experienced homelessness at some point this year. Veterans make up more than a quarter of all homeless people in the country, though veterans make up just 11 percent of the overall population.

It's no secret that the president of the United States has lost his credibility on virtually every issue to which he has addressed himself, but the disjunction is particularly acute when it comes to veterans of his failed war policies. He has instructed the rest of us on the importance of national sacrifice, musing, "Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country," what was unclear from Bush's remarks was just who, besides the soldiers and their families, were doing any sacrificing.

Bush is the first American president ever to combine the fighting of a war with the granting of a massive tax cut to wealthiest Americans--or indeed any Americans. The president also encouraged Americans to shop and offered further tax-breaks for gas-guzzling SUVs. To top it all off, the administration refused to allow the coffins of returning soldiers to be photographed, and thereby did not invite Americans to honor their war dead. (The flights carrying wounded soldiers to U.S. military hospitals also arrived at night to preclude much photography.) Also ignoring previous precedent, George W. Bush attended no military funerals. He furthermore refused numerous requests that he personally deliver a recruitment speech, despite the crying need for new enlistees his own policies have created.

A new G.I. Bill would be smart place to for progressives to begin. As Dionne has argued, such an approach would not only be fair and decent; it would demonstrate that progressives "honor two things at least. We honor service to country and community and say that that's important. And then by rewarding service to country and community, we assert that government has the capacity to help lift people up."

Indeed, Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) are calling for just such a measure--a post-Iraq G.I. Bill. They noted in a joint op-ed in The New York Times last Friday that the current Montgomery G.I. Bill provides hardly enough for one to attend a community college, and that "first-class service to country deserves first-class appreciation." Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) has joined with veteran and former Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA) in calling for active measures to prevent veterans from losing their jobs when they return from service, since nearly 11,000 National Guard and Reserve troops alone have been denied reemployment since 9/11.

FDR's G.I. bill was liberalism at its best; it offered opportunity in gratitude for assuming responsibility and helping remake America in its own self-image. As a symbol of just how different progressives are from conservatives today--as well as from the caricature that conservatives and their allies in the mainstream media so frequently pose--a new G.I. would paint the kind of picture that is worth not merely a thousand, but many millions of George W. Bush's worthless words.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, "Altercation," appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

Originally posted at the Center for American Progress.