Bergdahl, VA Scandals Show Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality of Service

Bergdahl, VA Scandals Show Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality of Service
Photo: Headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC, Dec. 29, 2008 (photo by Flickr user Adam Fagen licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).
Underneath the politicking, exaggeration and sensationalism, the angry national conversations about wait times for veterans’ health care, on the one hand, and the alleged transgressions of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, on the other, have offered a clear window into some rough realities of military life. Americans have learned a number of things in recent days that, judging by the evidence, we would rather not know. The release of audits of the workings of the Veterans’ Administration confirmed that too often whole branches of government charged with meeting our commitment to care for veterans have resorted to deception and dishonesty instead of facing problems openly. The release of emails and the re-examination of the record around the capture of Bergdahl confirmed, at minimum, that joining the military is no antidote for saying and doing intemperate and foolish things. American soldiers and their families are not perfect, stoic, uncomplaining patriots. The fact that any Americans believe this highlights just how divorced from military realities the 99 percent of us who don’t serve are. (Perhaps it would help if American history courses included as part of their reading lists Catch-22, M*A*S*H or any of the excellent, searing memoirs of our more recent wars—such as Love My Rifle More Than You—which don’t sugarcoat what it’s like to serve or whitewash the range of responses from those who do.) These unpleasant disclosures about the VA and Bergdahl do have short-term fixes. Veterans who have suffered long waits for care can be prioritized. Additional funding can be found for VA medical personnel right away. As for Bergdahl, the Army has well-developed procedures to investigate and, if justified, reprimand, punish or court-martial him. But if policymakers and opinion-leaders satisfy themselves with those steps and simply move on to the next overblown political “crisis,” they will have missed an important opportunity to consider the realities and limits of American security policy. Why is the Veterans’ Administration and its partner the Veterans’ Health Administration such a quagmire? As Norm Ornstein wrote, the root of the problem lies in the “stark mismatch between demand and supply.” Veterans live longer, meaning that more of them are eligible for more care; and the wars of the past decade led both to growth in the size of the armed forces, and thus in the number of veterans, as well as in the number and complexity of health issues faced by those veterans. Ornstein also notes that presidents of both parties since George H. W. Bush have struggled to improve the VA’s management. Why is this so hard? Iraq War veteran and former Pentagon official Phil Carter sets out the challenges the VA faces. It is the second-largest agency in government, managing a huge array of dispersed and diffuse institutions. When it attempts to modernize or reform its programs and facilities, it faces intense political pressure from interest groups and members of Congress who like things just the way they are—even if that wastes money. Last, Carter writes, “Twenty years ago, the VA led the nation in development of electronic health records. Today, the VA has fallen behind.” He notes that some VA facilities are still using information systems built on DOS. One of the bedrocks of American public life, especially in the years since 9/11, is that veterans deserve medical care. And overall, in fact, the care given through the VA is overall highly-praised—and you can’t beat the price. But for now, having served in the military doesn’t exempt you from antiquated systems and overworked, underpaid medical professionals. And it turns out that if we believe it should, we would have to cure those ills in civilian medicine as well: Rather than looking at health care for veterans as totally divorced from the national debate over health care, we should see the two as integrated, because they are. There are not two markets for doctors, nurses and technicians, but one; the same is true for the market-based system that, with government intervention here and there, sets the cost of care that public, state and private institutions must respond to. Jawboning about our sacred duty to those who serve does nothing to produce more nurses, gerontologists and general practitioners willing to work in under-served parts of the country. We also, in the end, have only one national job market in America. It has been written that Bowe Bergdahl first tried to expand his horizons by enlisting in the French Foreign Legion, and only turned to the U.S. military after that plan failed. When he joined, in 2008, the Army had lowered its standards for two successive years in order to fill its demand for new recruits as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on. A public debate about the lowering of standards and the admission of people with prior convictions and without high school diplomas ensued, though Bergdahl himself doesn’t fit this stereotype. What didn’t ensue was much discussion about what happened in the field to the young men and women who joined up in the midst of the disillusionment phase of America’s post-9/11 wars. The late Michael Hastings, when he profiled Bergdahl’s unit after his capture, described it as “breaking even the most basic rules of combat.” That story didn’t attract much attention. In other cases, soldiers who acted out in appalling ways—killing civilians and taking trophies—have been court-martialed and convicted. But those stories fell out of the news pretty fast as well. In some ways, that’s appropriate. The vast majority of American soldiers meet high moral standards under pretty difficult conditions. In other words, they meet our fantasy of them. But why wasn’t there an outcry about ill-disciplined units? Why weren’t there congressional hearings and national soul-searching when a soldier left his unit and, instead of wandering into the arms of the Taliban, gunned down Afghan women and children in a nearby village? Could it be because we just don’t want to know that war and service, which produce stirring tales of bravery and sacrifice, produce this, too? Of course, much of the outrage around Bergdahl’s return is manufactured for partisan purposes. Why else would members of Congress who had every reason to know the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture have tweeted their joy at his release, only to delete the tweets and withdraw their support within hours? The Army will do what it does in response to questions about Bergdahl’s actions; the political theater will continue until the lead actors seize on some new outrage. But in his case, as in the case of the VA, we would do well to notice the broadening gap between the rhetoric used by the 99 percent who don’t serve in the military about service, duty and sacrifice, and the reality of what choosing military service—both the unvarnished reality of wartime and the inability of our system to fund the promises it makes—means for the 1 percent who do. Heather Hurlburt is a senior fellow at Human Rights First in Washington. With experience in the White House, Congress, the State Department and overseas, she focuses on the space between diplomacy and domestic politics. Her WPR column, Full-Spectrum Diplomacy, will appear every Monday while Richard Gowan is on leave of absence.

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