ash-carter

The Obama Administration has been a long season of darkness for the military and veteran community. Despite campaign promises to reduce the strain on military families, Obama has drastically increased the stresses of military life by slashing resources and manpower without dialing back mission demands. He’s consistently taken bad strategic advice from generals and bureaucrats far removed from those stresses, never seeming to gain his own appreciation of what he’s asking of those who serve.

But Obama and his national security team reserved their most perniciously cold and heartless act for the waning moments of his presidency. As widely reported a week ago and since channeled into a rightfully bellowing outcry, the Department of Defense has been hounding Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to pay back — with interest and penalties — bonuses it says were wrongly doled out years ago by wayward recruiters hurriedly filling the ranks to keep the wheels of war moving.

Despite having accepted the enlistment bonuses in good faith, men and women who served honorably found themselves facing wage garnishments and credit threats unless they cold cough up thousands of dollars they believed had been rightfully paid to them. All because, the Department says, the bonuses should not have been offered in the first place or were paid out incorrectly.

Earlier this week, the Administration reversed itself, abandoning its initial recalcitrance and suspending recoupment efforts. President Obama made it clear he doesn’t want individual soldiers holding the bag for bureaucratic errors. Defense Secretary Ash Carter engaged in similarly heartening rhetoric. On the surface, this looks like democracy in action. The public pressure applied by advocates and media coverage over the past week seemingly generated a righteous reversal of a wrong decision.

But it’s not all good news. In fact, it’s only really good news at all to the extent it’s good news when a few survivors are pulled out of a flaming train wreck.

It’s great that the President supports doing the right thing on this issue. But it’s also his bureaucratically toxic DoD that thought this was a good idea in the first place.

It’s great that Ash Carter is keen to do the right thing now. But why didn’t he prevent this from happening in the first place? Who will he hold accountable? If he wasn’t informed until the issue broke in the media, why not? Why hasn’t he cultivated a culture where his permission is necessary before bureaucrats correct regulatory errors by enforcing writs of collection and imposing life-crushing financial hardship upon individuals who acted and served in good faith?

But most dishearteningly, where in the hell are the generals in all of this? Why haven’t any of them been spotted camping out in Carter’s office lobbying him to unscrew this situation? Why haven’t any of them resigned in protest against a policy unfairly hosing soldiers placed in their care? Where are the perfumed princes who made their stars on the backs of these soldiers, and why aren’t they being hauled to the stockade for insubordination for refusing to go along with garbage like this?

This isn’t the first time in recent history the generals have stood idle while their soldiers were taken to the cleaners by green eyeshade wearing bean counters at the Pentagon. Recall that in 2013, Congress got together and hatched a budget deal that included a retroactive cut in veteran pensions, half-inching an average of $80k-$120k from the pockets of those who kept their end of the bargain. Only after months of public advocacy and political lobbying sufficiently shifted the narrative did the Administration successfully appeal to Congress to reverse the measure.

The real question isn’t how senior officials react when it becomes politically sensible for them to appear to be taking up for the troops. We know what they will do under those circumstances and we know why. The real question is why we’re gullible enough to think the same people aren’t the ones setting such regrettable plans in motion in the first place, through their expressed preferences, influence, and decisions.

The plan to make soldiers pay back bonuses to cover for administrative incompetence was hatched by the Obama Administration and unopposed by a knowing Congress. It was fielded by and with the direct knowledge of general officers charged with safeguarding the well-being of the very individuals who stood to be victimized. In other words, it was set in motion with the explicit or tacit approval of the same people who are now pretending to rescue the situation. These guys are like a nurse who makes a patient sick so she can be the hero who steps in and saves the day.

In 2014, pensions were made whole again because it became evident to legislators and bureaucrats that veterans would otherwise turn against them. This time around, it’s the same story. Obama and his henchmen are desperate to be perceived fixing this mess before it infects the narratives governing next month’s presidential election. After all, Hillary Clinton served in this administration and helped preside over the creation of a historically unprecedented mismatch between demands and resources. A mismatch being ameliorated through unprecedented stress and pain in military families. She voted in favor of the Iraq war. She doesn’t have a good reputation with the military and veteran community. Keeping all of that from becoming an asset to her opponent is the controlling reason we now see the President getting off the bench to fix a problem created under his own hand.

As for the generals … they’re just cowards. As a cohort, they can’t be depended upon for moral courage anymore, if ever they could. They’ve allowed their order to be utterly captured by rational politics devoid of values or value judgments, and they certainly aren’t willing to put their own interests at risk to safeguard the interests of their people. In other words, they’re not military leaders. It’s time the country and the military community recognize generalship and leadership have diverged in the American tradition.

Interestingly, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which was basically aloof to the pension fight in 2013, seems to be getting this one right. The organization has called on Congress to enact legislation to pay back individuals who have already repaid their bonuses — in some cases with interest and penalties. This is the right thing for Congress to do. The question remains why IAVA — which knew or should have known about this issue long before the rest of us became aware — waited for this issue to become a media favorite before acting upon it. 

If Congress acts on IAVA’s recommendation, it won’t be because it’s the right thing to do. It’ll be because it’s in their interest, which is why political threats continue to be more useful than IAVA-style appeals to morality.

Until Washington is once again inhabited by leaders, this sort of malfeasance will continue, and no one will be held accountable … because those who did it were simply acting on the political will of the self-interested cabal we have all been dumb enough to put in charge. 

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, and highlighting them is important to eventually changing the fundamentals. Take a look at the letter penned by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who instantly got on the right side of this. He didn’t wait for the political calculations to be tallied. He called this what it was, swiftly and unapologetically: “boneheaded.”

Until there are more like Hunter holding elected office … until we as a nation regain a basic grip on character and perspective … continued vigilance and political brawling are the order of the day. No matter who is elected next month, veterans are an at-risk population going forward.

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