Book Review: “War’s Waste”

amputees blogOn Nov. 11, while the rest of the countries involved in WWI hold Remembrance events, the United Sates celebrates Veterans Day. Sometimes there are parades or ceremonies honoring the flag; sometimes the day passes only with the banks and post office being closed and kids getting  day off school.

Caring for veterans is a serious concern for any country. Here Len Shurtleff reviews Beth Linkner’s book about the aftermath of WWI.

War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America, by Beth Linker, University of Chicago, 304 pages, photos, tables, index, ISBN 978 0 2264 8253, $35.

Review by Len Shurtleff

In post-Civil War America, veterans’ pensions were the largest line item in federal budgets, taking up some 50% of that budget by 1900. By 1915, these pensions had cost $3 billion, more than the cost of the war itself. According to Linker, this created a virtual pork-barrel welfare state for Union veterans of about $3 million annually.

These pensions and an accompanying system of national soldiers’ homes had support from the politically powerful Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union veterans’ organization upon whose patronage Republican politicians depended for votes and campaign funding. Progressive Era reformers saw this as wasteful of public funds and a disincentive to productive work and self-improvement among veterans.

The outbreak of World War I prompted progressive reformers to apply their social gospel and work ethic ideals to veterans’ benefits in an effort to reduce the drain on the public purse. The War Risk Insurance Act of 1914 created a new board to adjudicate claims for war damage or loss that was independent from the corrupt Treasury Pension Bureau.

The system grew in complexity with America’s entry into the war in 1917, adding provisions for mandatory allotments for dependents, life and disability insurance, and mandatory restorative rehabilitation for wounded troops.

The aim became one of rehabilitation; returning wounded men to productive civilian lives, teaching them new skills if necessary and providing amputees with serviceable prostheses.

As a result of this dramatic turnaround in treatment of wounded veterans, the Army Surgeon General’s Office constructed some 149 new hospitals with 100,000 beds with ample facilities for treatment and long-term rehabilitation. Amputee veterans were looked upon not as objects of pity, but as candidates for total rehabilitation and reintegration into civilian life as productive wage earners and husbands and fathers rather than swelling the welfare rolls.

Still, this new effort saved no money. By 1920, the federal government was spending as much on World War I veterans it was on Civil War survivors, and veterans benefits still took up half the federal budget.

By 1935, New Deal recovery programs had, of course, vastly reduced this share as federal budgets expanded mightily.

This system now is a complex mix of war risk insurance, physical rehabilitation and vocational training managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The several iterations of the post-World War II GI Bill have added both benefits and costs that dwarf any previous veteran pension scheme dating back to the War of 1812.

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