The recent Congressional elections once again yielded an increasing number of military veterans heading to Washington. Nearly one in five lawmakers of the upcoming 118th Congress will have military experience. That’s still a low percentage, historically, but the numbers are trending up after bottoming out in 2013-2014. This year’s Senate and House ballots saw 196 veterans standing for elections, the largest number since 2012.
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The decline in veteran representation goes back to the 1970s. When Congress ended the draft in 1973, 75% of Representatives and Senators had military experience. 1973 wasn’t an arbitrary date for transitioning to an all-volunteer force. The US withdrew all combat units from Vietnam that year, drastically reducing manpower demands. Over 500,000 troops were deployed to Vietnam at the war’s height in 1968, on top of NATO requirements in Europe, which remained the top priority.
With the Vietnam surge on top of a draft that had been in place since 1940, the 1980 Census showed that one in eight Americans were veterans. By 2020, that number had dropped to around one in 17. But the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have developed a new generation of leaders who are seeking political office in greater numbers.
It has been said that those who have seen war firsthand are the most reluctant to engage in it. It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who oversaw the end of the fighting in Korea. One could argue that he also began US involvement in Vietnam, which was escalated by fellow veteran John F. Kennedy.
Vietnam’s origins are a complex subject that cannot be addressed here. But to be fair, Eisenhower and Kennedy’s contributions to Vietnam did not include combat troops. That was left to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was technically a veteran since he secured a World War II Navy commission, with no training, to benefit his political career. He even managed to have himself awarded a Silver Star in return for political favors. But that’s another tangent.
Kennedy, who had real combat experience, must also be given credit for successfully navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was probably the closest the world has come to nuclear war since 1945.
Eisenhower also warned, as he left office, about the dangers of the military-industrial complex, which profits immensely from war. Many believe that the last 20 years have proved Eisenhower correct. Whether the rising numbers of veterans in political leadership will alter the questionable military policies of the last two decades remains to be seen, but their perspectives will perhaps be better informed.
While preparing for this article, I talked to a couple of veterans whose opinions I respect. I asked if they believed more veterans in Congress was a good thing, bad thing, or whatever, and why they believed that. The answer I got was thought-provoking and, admittedly, somewhat unexpected.
A Useful Skill Set
It was pointed out to me that Global War on Terror veterans are accustomed to working with uncooperative, or even hostile, “allies” and still accomplishing their mission. Anyone who has paid attention to the Afghanistan and Iraq situations is aware of that.
But my friend said he believes those skills may translate to the hyper-partisan and clearly divided political environment in Washington. Now, I am as skeptical of politicians as anyone else. I think partisan media, whether it be traditional, alternative, or “social,” deliberately stokes political and ideological divides for profit. That media pulls in politicians who either adapt and use it or see their careers ended by those who do.
Even more powerful is the lure of special interest money. It’s no coincidence that most members of Congress become millionaires if they remain for any period of time. And we should never forget that any politician’s number one priority is getting reelected.
A Way Forward?
But my friend’s assertion about younger leaders who have seen such things elsewhere gives me a bit of hope that things can maybe change for the better. At least a little. I have long believed that, despite the rhetoric, Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same party, though they get pulled different ways by the vocal extremes on each end. Perhaps courageous and effective leadership from people who have been there and done that can rein in some of those tendencies.
Washington has its own rules, but as new young leaders enter the fray, those rules may change a bit for the better. Principles have been largely absent for too long, and that must change. I confess to being less than optimistic. But I like the trends. I like to think that many, or even most, of these veterans are motivated by a desire to serve, as their past careers have indicated.
Here’s hoping that the desire to serve can withstand Washington’s often pernicious influence. Maybe then, what these folks have seen and done overseas can be applied back home and perhaps steer us toward more positive outcomes.