‘We are going to take care of the troops, first, last and all the time’ – George Marshall, 1940

The war was winding down, but soldiers who had spent the better part of a decade fighting for their country were furious. Congress had refused to give them promised pay and pension benefits, partly because it couldn’t afford to—the government was deeply in debt. An anonymous letter circulated in George Washington’s camp at Newburgh, N.Y., suggesting an armed protest: “If this, then, be your treatment while the swords you wear are necessary to the defense of America, what have you to expect from peace, when your voice shall sink and your strength dissipate by division—when those very swords, the instruments and companions of your glory, shall be taken from your sides and no remaining mark of military distinction be left but your wants, infirmities and scars? Can you then consent to…grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt?”

Washington was sincerely sympathetic; he had long pleaded with Congress for provisions, uniforms and back pay for his men. But revolt was a different matter. He would not tolerate mutiny. So he summoned a meeting of the officers on March 15, 1783, to denounce the anonymous author as an “insidious foe” of the Revolution. Then he took from his pocket a letter from a friendly member of Congress. He tried to read it but found the script indecipherable in the hall’s dim light and searched his pockets for a pair of spectacles. As he put them on, he said quietly, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” The officers were so moved by the moment that many wept. Afterwards, nothing more was heard of revolt.

Soldiers returning from America’s latest wars also face an uncertain future. The unemployment rate in 2011 among the 2.2 million men and women who served during the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan averaged 12.1 percent, substantially above the national rate of 8.9 percent. For younger veterans between the ages of 18 and 24, critical years for entering the workforce, the unemployment rate reached an alarming 30.2 percent, compared to a national average of 16.3 percent.

Americans often glorify soldiers while battles rage and express token gratitude for their service, but quickly forget them when the guns fall silent. Since the founding of the republic, veterans have had to fight for their benefits, and their success at receiving those benefits has depended less on the country’s conscience than on political circumstance and expediency. When there have been large numbers of returning soldiers, especially draftees, and they have been well organized, they have fared well. But when veterans have represented a small percentage of the population, and have been volunteers or lacked politi­cal clout, their needs have gotten short shrift.

Revolutionary War vets ended up with a raw deal. Not long after peace was officially declared in September 1783, Congress disbanded the army, and as the anonymous letter predicted, the soldiers’ political clout disappeared. They queued up with other creditors of the government, and most sold their pension and pay claims to speculators for pennies on the dollar.

A significant factor working against Revolutionary War veterans was their small number. The Continental Army never comprised more than 30,000 officers and men. The vast majority of Americans had nothing personal at stake in the plight of veterans after the war. Citizens who did feel the matter personally were unable to do much about it. American politics in the 18th and early 19th centuries was controlled by a small elite group of property holders. Most of the men who had filled the ranks of Washington’s army couldn’t even vote.

By the time the Civil War began, the situation was quite different. The 1820s rise of Andrew Jackson and his populist democracy, which made voters of almost all adult white males, had created a Congress far more susceptible to popular pressure. The scale of the Civil War, in which more than 2.2 million men served the Union and more than 1 million served the Confederacy, left few families untouched.

Conscription also democratized the Civil War. When volunteers filled the army ranks, most Americans perceived no distinctive obligation to those who signed up. Enlistment was an open-eyed, if patriotic, transaction. But when the Confederacy instituted a draft in 1862 and the Union followed a year later, the bargain changed. Young men were required to risk their lives in battle or be shot for cowardice. The government and the nation presumably had an obligation to alleviate soldiers’ distress if they were wounded or disabled.

This presumption underpinned new laws that authorized pensions for soldiers permanently injured or disabled while in the service of the United States, and for the dependents of soldiers killed in battle or who died from disease incurred in service. The amount of a Union veteran’s pension was tied to the degree of his disability, with the maximum payment initially set at $8 per month, or about a third of the average wage of an unskilled laborer. By 1866 the amount had increased to $20, and by 1872 to $24, about three-quarters of a manual worker’s wage. But as Civil War veterans grew older, some discovered that wartime injuries hastened the aging process, rendering them decrepit before their time. They sought pensions like those injured comrades in arms had been receiving for years. The Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union veterans, lobbied successfully to have latent injuries qualify veterans for military pensions, and eventually convinced Congress to define mere old age as grounds for receiving federal funds.

The cumulative effect of the lobbying was startling. One-quarter of all federal expenditures between 1880 and 1910 were allocated to veterans’ pensions; by the latter year, 28 percent of American men 65 years of age or older—more than half a million persons—were receiving pensions. The individual amounts weren’t extravagant, averaging $189 a year, but when combined with payments to 300,000 widows, orphans and other survivors, the sum was a substantial commitment. Many states supplemented the federal support by maintaining retirement homes for veterans.

Confederate veterans were not so lucky. Some eventually received modest disability pensions from their financially strapped states or lived in state-run retirement homes. But the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited former Confederates from receiving federal benefits.

Most Civil War soldiers had died by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917. A draft soon followed America’s declaration of war, again implying an obligation to those who served. But the progressives running the federal government, appalled by the cost and open-ended nature of the Civil War model of veterans benefits, wanted something more contained. Anticipating postwar needs, Congress created three separate agencies, later to be consolidated into the Veterans Administration, to handle medical and disability benefits and stipulated that in 1945 veterans would get a one-time bonus payment to help them in retirement.

‘The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten’ – Calvin Coolidge, 1920

A distant payoff seemed satisfactory during most of the 1920s, when the country was thriving. But the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression prompted vets to demand their bonus at once. Advocates said the payments would serve the country by lifting consumer spending and priming the economy.

When President Herbert Hoover disagreed, about 25,000 vets mobilized to march on Washington and set up camp. Not all the veterans of World War I sympathized with the marchers, who attracted elements the American Legion, an advocacy organization formed in the wake of the war, considered dangerous. Hoover ordered army chief of staff Douglas MacArthur to clear the vets out. MacArthur exceeded his orders, directing a tank column against the veterans’ makeshift camp. The regular army defeated the “Bonus Army” on the banks of the Anacostia River, leaving two persons dead—including a small child—and the Hoover administration more unpopular with ordinary Americans than ever. When Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover’s challenger in the 1932 presidential election, heard the news, he turned to his friend and adviser Felix Frankfurter and declared, “Well, Felix, this elects me.”

Once in office, Roosevelt gave the veterans something better than a one-time bonus: jobs. Roosevelt’s pet project, the Civilian Conservation Corps, put young men to work in the forests and mountains of America building roads, cutting trails and planting trees. The upper age limit for participants was 25 years, but Roosevelt arranged to lift the limit for veterans, who found themselves once more working for the government, once more in uniform and under military-style discipline and once more on the front lines—fighting fires and underbrush.

The gold standard of commitment to veterans was established in 1944 when Congress passed the G.I. Bill of Rights. The measure was an attempt to do right by the 16 million Americans under arms during the greatest war in history; it also was a key part of Roosevelt’s plan to keep the economy from slipping back into depression once the stimulus of wartime spending ceased. The G.I. Bill put mustering-out money in the hands of soldiers and supplemented that with compensation until vets found jobs. The government also underwrote the biggest purchase most vets would ever make—a house. Three-and-a-half million vets benefited from mortgage assistance. In the late 1940s, the G.I. Bill financed nearly half the new houses built in the United States.

The bill’s provisions for education payments meant that soldiers wouldn’t flood the labor market. The government offered to pay tuition and fees and a monthly living stipend. Nearly 8 million G.I.s took advantage of the program. A few years after the war, G.I. Bill students occupied more than 40 percent of the seats in colleges, which welcomed the mature, motivated learners.

Many historians and economists consider the G.I. Bill the best investment the country ever made. The original bill and subsequent updates cost taxpayers $70 billion, but studies show that several times that amount was returned to the government in the form of higher taxes paid by G.I.s who would never have gone to college without government help. The economy surged, the middle class grew and millions of lives were enriched.

‘A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors’ – John F. Kennedy, 1963

Veterans of America’s post-1945 wars have fared less well. The ambiguous outcome of the Korean War and the defeat in Vietnam didn’t help matters, but neither did the smaller numbers of veterans, compared with World War II, and their corresponding lack of political clout. Veterans of the recent war in Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan face similar challenges. The 2.2 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans account for less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population. The vast majority of Americans has had little or no direct contact with anyone who fought in these wars and consequently no more than second-hand concern with their fate. The comprehensive pension and medical benefits promised veterans do not appear to be in any immediate jeopardy, but that may change as Republicans and Democrats alike scramble to find ways to cut government expenditures to deal with America’s $15 trillion federal debt. Meanwhile the number of veterans requiring specialized medical care continues to grow.

Both Korea and Vietnam revealed a consequence of improved medical evacuation capabilities: More severely wounded soldiers lived than in previous wars. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers have benefited from even speedier evacuation and what U.S. Navy Captain Mike McCarten, who ran a military hospital in Kandahar, calls “the most effective trauma system on the planet.” The result is saved lives but also higher medical costs, often extending far into the future. A RAND Corporation study revealed that 19 percent of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of violent physical jolts to the head, mainly from explosives. Another 18.5 percent experienced mental or emotional trauma that gives rise to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Official statistics on combat wounds don’t include either conditions, but thousands of vets may require prolonged treatment for them.

So far not a great deal has been done to ease unemployment among recent vets. The government pays up to $17,500 a year plus living expenses for three years of education and training for veterans who served more than 90 days in the armed forces after September 11, 2001, and President Barack Obama signed a bill last November offering tax credits to employers who hire unemployed or disabled veterans. But jobs remain scarce, particularly for young male veterans looking for work in blue-collar fields like manufacturing and construction.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterward. More than that no man is entitled to, and less than that no man shall have.” Throughout our nation’s history, determining the nature of that square deal has been problematic. Should veterans be made financially whole for the time they have spent in the service? If wounded, and they can’t be restored, how should they be compensated? If military service fails to provide veterans with the skills necessary to find work in the civilian sector, should the government take action? Reasonable people can disagree, and within that disagreement politics rules. It might seem a harsh irony to veterans waiting for treatment in understaffed VA facilities or struggling to find work, but this imperfect form of governance—this democracy—is precisely what they fought to defend.

H.W. Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. His biography of Ulysses S. Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union, will be published in October.