More GI Bill Debate

Yesterday we pointed out a major flaw in the debate over the new GI Bill. In fact, the CBO analysis cited by both McCain (in opposing the bill) and Obama (in supporting it) shows that the bounce in recruitment would outweigh the decline in re-enlistment. But as many have pointed out, that view doesn’t take “experience” into account. Who’s to say whether 30,000 new recruits will be better for the military than 7,000 noncommissioned officers who’ve been around the block?

A friend in the Marines who is currently stationed in Iraq (and prefers to remain anonymous) argues that it’s even more complicated than that:

I have to agree with your update in that experience is worth its weight in gold . Everyone dreads the ‘boot drop’ when PFCs and lance corporals straight from MOS school show up knowing … very little. It’s the same with 2 nd Lieutenants who show up to a unit—there’s a reason they’re called boot lieutenants.  What’s really valuable is retaining someone who’s spent years of his life training and actually deploying and working in this war because they have knowledge and experience in both their jobs and in just dealing with military life that you can’t create overnight. 

Of course, the downside to good retention is that in the military, you can’t stay in a job for 20 years no matter how good you are at it . You have to be promoted and move up the ladder until you’re promoted to your lowest level of incompetence. So while we say we want a force full of experienced captains and NCOs who have been around the block a few times, we’re lying to ourselves if we think retention is the solution.  With the current promotion rates (something like 98 percent make it to captain in the USMC, and I think it’s the same if not higher in the army) and the accelerated pipeline (I’ve heard the time from commissioning to captain is 39 months in the Army, with 18 to 1 st Lieutenant) it’s only a matter of time before that captain, if he’s motivated and a performer, will become a major and then a lieutenant colonel, or that shit hot sergeant becomes a staff NCO. So under that system you need a constant input to ensure that at the ranks you want people you can continue to have experienced officers and NCOs while still promoting people out of those ranks. The force structure is very very dynamic and maintaining an equilibrium, or even approaching a desired end state, is very difficult and very temporary. [Emphasis added.]

So while “experience” is important, it means nothing if you don’t have a steady flow of new recruits.

John McCain has the advantage of understanding the chaotic structure of the military—he logged more than 20 years in the Navy and has two sons in uniform. But the GI bill debate inevitably gets squished into the narrow terms of who is “supporting the troops” more. It’s easier to argue that more education benefits are automatically better than to analyze the complexities of the military hierarchy. Which is why, at least on this issue, McCain has failed to persuade his fellow senators.