Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Real GI Bill of Rights

The new GI Bill currently wending its tortuous way through Congress is of course a damn good idea, and a long time coming. Word is that the measure will eventually pass, but could face a presidential veto because in the minds of George Bush and, among others as we go to press, John McCain, the bill is too good (take a deep breath now, we didn’t make this up).

As has been widely reported, both McCain and Bush have opined that by treating our kids with the respect and dignity they most certainly deserve we’re making it easier for these service people to bail out after their initial hitch is up, thereby significantly reducing reenlistment numbers. In their minds, apparently, maintaining the status quo is more important to them than doing the right thing, so they would seem to be be content with the current regime of malign neglect and draconian indifference that characterizes the current state of affairs in the defense establishment.

And while nothing is too good for any kid who signs up to serve his/her country, an examination of the particulars of the new GI Bill becomes notable not for what it contains but what it leaves out.

From their point of view, the authors of the bill seem to have touched all the bases, and that’s a good thing. Who would argue with assuring our service people and their families of good equipment, comprehensive health care in and out of the VA, better pay, humane deployment policies and better educational opportunities?

But there’s more to this. If we’re going to erect an umbrella of protection over our service people the authors of the bill might well consider their personal and civil liberties as well.
For some time now, as anyone who has been following the story already knows, there has been an ongoing litany of theocratic coercion perpetrated by a particularly fanatical cadre of Dominionist Christians currently holding sway throughout the ranks in all our service branches. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has to date documented nearly 8,000 instances of theocratic abuse, and those numbers are growing almost daily.

Knowing this, one can only wonder why there hasn’t been an effort to protect one of our most basic of human rights, even in the military: The right to believe - or not - in any religious or spiritual faith, free from interference or reprisal by superiors or peers.

Now you’d think something like this would be a no-brainer for anyone who purports to believe in the American way, but evidently this issue has somehow slipped through the cracks. For reasons that have managed to bypass this observer’s own logic filters, even the military reformers in Congress don’t see this as a major problem.

Ironic when you think of it, because it would seem to be counterintuitive to send our kids into harm’s way to defeat the toxic fundamentalism of well-organized religious extremists, while being led by an equally well-organized cadre of religious extremists whose own fundamentalist beliefs are all the more toxic because they’re homegrown and operating with at least the tacit approval of our current administration and their enablers in Congress.

Mind you there has been some progress, albeit fleeting. Back in ‘99 Bob Barr, then a Georgia Representative, decided to declare war on Wiccans in the military, even though the soldiers involved did their thing off-hours and off-post. Barr got pretty well smacked down on that one, but for years the Wiccan pentacle was not approved as a religious marker on military graves. That was finally resolved last year when the Department of Veterans Affairs finally gave in and add the pentacle to their approved list.

Would that this were the rule rather than the exception. Unfortunately every procedural victory such as the Wiccan thing requires a huge amount of sweat equity to make it happen. Even now there are similar cases percolating glacially through the courts, while the larger issue continues to be the elephant in the room.

What we’re talking about here is nothing less than a referendum on the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and whether the essential rights of citizens enumerated therein apply equally to our citizen-soldiers. Remember also that the tag line on the Fourteenth authorizes Congress to enforce the rules by “appropriate legislation.”

So, Congress, here’s your chance to do exactly that. And if any of your membership has actually studied US history lately, you’ll recall that it took just about a hundred years from the inception of the Fourteenth to finally enact federal civil rights legislation.

Well, people, you don’t have that kind of time any more. You might want to revisit Brown v. Board of Education and find the admonition to take care of business “with all deliberate speed.” So how about getting down to it and promulgate a GI Bill of Rights that actually includes the Bill of Rights. Anything less would be, well, un-American.

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