I was reading the Washington Post's article about Great Leader's budget proposal a few days ago (don't worry - it ain't happenin') this morning. Obviously, the main feature of the budget was accelerating our already-comic* level of military spending at the expense of most of our other agencies.
What really pulled me in was a separate issue - spending by the VA.
I've borrowed the graphic from the WaPo article.
Look at that trend line - from 1978 til present, we've seen an uninterrupted increase of veteran's benefits. This is interesting - are we spending more on veteran's than ever before (you wouldn't think so by listening to people complain), or are we seeing the last wave of WW2 vets suck up a bunch of money before dying off (early nineties for men who were young during the conflict).
At any rate, from this spending data it appears that military servicemen enjoy bipartisan support (more so than, say, building more tanks that will be scrapped). I think the reason for this is obvious - anyone who votes - or even suggests - cutting benefits to servicemen is viewed as an unpatriotic ogre. Perhaps this would be the "other third rail" of American politics.
It's not just politicians, either. Regular people are inclined to give military members special dispensation. Have you ever read the book Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell? I've read fantasy books with more fiction; among other things (and this is the kind of situation where there really are many other things), he claims that his four guys were attacked by over 200 enemy fighters and killed dozens of them (This casts some very polite shade on that claim). He also claimed he didn't use the radio because he had dirt in his throat and, after being sort-of-captured (although he claimed he could have broken out any time he wanted to, despite some significant injuries) he came face to face with the Taliban leader minutes before being rescued. Seriously.
I'm not calling the guy out for some really questionable statements. He's been through enough, certainly. Moreover, there was a ghostwriter who may have interjected the macho fantasy narrative that the book is steeped in. But I am noting that no book critics said anything about a story that sounds like a particularly grim adventure made up by an eleven-year-old, and the book itself has a 4.5-star Amazon review.
Reading back the last two paragraphs, I feel like an asshole for writing what I did, even though every word is defensible. That tells me that the bias in this matter is really, really strong.
But maybe I'm wrong about the book. There's no accounting for taste, right? Perhaps if I used a more demonstrable example of military-related behavior that remains bafflingly unquestioned?
Since tackling cases one by one gets us into the weeds, let's go high and look at expenditures on a large scale. This gives us a big-picture perspective, and also dehumanizes soldiers by treating them as a group. This sounds bad, but is beneficial in a dispassionate analysis by removing personal bias. You can replace "veterans" with "policemen" or "teachers" if you like, and the data remains the same**.
Overall VA spending is on the rise (see figure 1), and this doesn't make sense. My real question is: what's driving this? Since our World War Two vets are now dying off, I should think our VA expenditures would be going down, not up. So I looked into it.
One big part of it: disability claims, particularly from Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to one figure (again, DoD) nearly one million former soldiers filed for disability, while another article states that nearly 700,000 soldiers were awarded some form of disability payment (note that these are not terribly recent articles, and that this number has likely increased; I found another source stating that there have been one million claims for disability filed).
Iraq and Afghanistan military actions killed 6,600-6,800 servicemen and women, depending on source. An additional 52,000 were wounded, according to the Department of Defense (referenced here). With 2.5 million Americans having served in these regions(!), the chances of being killed or injured is around 2.3% (I'm not sure if this includes noncombat injuries). As these things go, this was one of the safest wars ever fought.
Let's assume every single person who's wounded or killed files for disability. That's about sixty thousand people. That means there are approximately 940,000 people who suffered no combat injury whatsoever who nonetheless filed for disability. Although I don't have figures to support the claim, I would be willing to wager that a good number of these people who have filed never saw any combat, as occurs for a majority of soldiers in any recent war.
Put it another way: FORTY PERCENT of the people who've been to Iraq or Afghanistan have filed for disability.
Put a third way: For every soldier wounded, twenty more are filing for disability.
Put a fourth way: The military rate of disability claims is twenty times higher than that for American civilians.
These numbers aren't the product of a partisan website that deliberately skews things; they're DoD numbers. Nor do I have an agenda. I'm just a quantitative-minded guy (OK, fine, a guy who can add and subtract) who sees some numbers that don't make sense.
Obviously I haven't done a lot of research into this, but unless I am missing something huge, it seems that one of two possibilities in is play: (1) War is unimaginably terrible, so bad in fact that huge numbers of people who haven't heard a weapon discharge since basic training are left so debilitated that they require permanent disability payments. Or, (2) people, specifically former soldiers, are filing for benefits using prevarication and/or specious reasoning.
On balance of probability, there's at least some bullshit going on here.
I understand this is contentious stuff. It's also complicated; this Planet Money article describes some of the issues underlying disability (and it's a great read). But they're experts and I'm not. If you're reading this and see where I've gone off course (by a lot, let's not quibble over 5 or 10 percent here), please, please point it out. I'm not claiming to be an expert on this in an way, shape or form. However, if you're feeling compelled to make an ad hominem attack against me for doubting the honor of our veterans, ask yourself 'why?' Am I demonstrably off base here, or is your rancor simply a product of an ingrained respect for military, a "thanks for your service" mentality that has installed a perpetual blind spot in our perceptions?
By the way, the cost of one million veterans drawing a $1,000-a-month disability payment is $12 billion a year, or roughly 81 dollars a year per tax-paying household.
*I looked up military spending by country on Wikipedia. From what I saw, we outspend everyone else combined. Forgetting the exact numbers, if this is even remotely true, it seems the military isn't exactly - what's the term - oh yeah: 'depleted'.
**This is distinct from underlying etiology, obviously.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.