The American Legion Magazine | 1.1.17The good news is that some of those who have served our
country in uniform are answering our country’s call to serve yet again –
this time in Congress. Veterans Campaign, a nonpartisan organization
that trains veterans for “a second service in civic leadership,” reports
that the number of veterans in the Senate had decreased in every
election since 1982 – until 2014, when the trend was reversed. And Iraq
and Afghanistan veterans accounted for one-quarter of the Senate’s 2014
By Alan W. Dowd
“The nation today needs men who
think in terms of service to their country and not in terms of their country’s
debt to them,” Gen. Omar Bradley observed in 1948.
As Military Times reports, 54 veterans of the
Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars ran for Congress in 2016 – “almost a third
of 172 veterans running in all the open congressional races.” In fact, Military Times notes,
the number of recent war veterans in Congress has risen every two years
since 2006. That trend will continue in the 115th Congress (2016-2017).
At least 27 veterans of post-9/11 wars won congressional races Nov. 8 –
up from 26 in the last Congress.
Even with several older veterans retiring, the new
Congress could field as many as 103 veterans. (Given that some seats
were still in question as this issue went to press, the final tally for
the 115th Congress was not yet official.) The number of veterans on
Capitol Hill hasn’t dipped below 100 in 70 years, according to Veterans
Now for the bad news. The overall number of veterans
serving in Congress has fallen steadily in recent years. As the
Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, the number of veterans
peaked in the House during the 90th Congress (1967-1968), when they
accounted for 75.2 percent of the body, and in the Senate during the
94th Congress (1975-1976), when they comprised 80 percent of the upper
This was largely a function of World War II. With 16
million Americans serving in the military during the war – fully 12
percent of the nation’s 1941 population – the number of veterans serving
in Congress naturally grew in the postwar period. As historian Victor
Davis Hanson observes, “Being a World War II veteran was virtually
mandatory for any congressional leader until about 1970.” Indeed, by
1969, 398 of the 535 members of Congress were veterans (74.3 percent).
Compare those numbers to recent trend lines. According to
CRS, at the beginning of the 114th Congress, 101 members had served in
the U.S. military: 81 in the House and 20 in the Senate. That equals
18.8 percent of Congress.
Thus, even with the recent influx of Iraq and Afghanistan
veterans, the number of veterans in Congress is lower today than it was
in the 113th Congress, when 108 members had served. And that was lower
than the 112th Congress, when 118 members had served in uniform.
“Thanks to OIF/OEF vets, we may be reversing this
four-decade-long decline,” says Seth Lynn, executive director of
percentage of veterans in Congress is still higher than that of the
general population (about 9.3 percent of today’s U.S. population served
in the military). Yet The Washington Post notes that in the
1970s, when veterans comprised more than 75 percent of Congress, they
accounted for less than 14 percent of the general population. If the
same proportions held today, almost half of Congress would have military
We are nowhere near that percentage. Instead, in a time of
war and international instability, less than one-fifth of those who
decide when, where and whether to give the president authorization for
military action, how much to allocate to national defense, and whom to
entrust with the keys to the Pentagon, VA, CIA and National Security
Agency have military experience.
The same trend is evident at the other end of Pennsylvania
Avenue. By the time the United States inaugurates Donald Trump as its
in chief, only one of the four presidents elected between 1992 and 2016 will have served in the military (George W. Bush).
However, there’s an asterisk. We like to think that
military service has always been a presidential prerequisite, but that’s
something of a post-World War II anomaly. Although an uninterrupted
string of nine presidents between 1945 and 1993 were veterans, no
president had military service between the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s
presidency (1909) and the beginning of Harry Truman’s (1945).
Of course, there’s an asterisk to this asterisk. VA notes
that 26 of the 44 men who have served as president also served in the
military (that’s 60 percent). Five more served in state militias (that’s
72 percent). So, perhaps the immediate pre-World War I era is the
In short, it seems Americans have traditionally viewed
military service as an important indicator of the kind of judgment and
experience needed to serve in the White House and Congress. If that
viewpoint no longer holds sway, those who worry about the dwindling
ranks of veterans in elective office can find some solace in history:
long before he served as president, John Adams proved himself a wise and
able legislator in war and peace, though he never served in the
military. Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt proved himself a resolute and
ready commander in chief, though he never served either.
the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration shrinks the size of the
military, as active-duty personnel and veterans grow increasingly
disenchanted with government, and as military service and the military
itself become an abstraction for most Americans, it’s difficult to see
how this trend will be reversed.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors.
In the past decade, the Air Force shed 44,000 active-duty
personnel. The Army’s active-duty end-strength will fall from 570,000
soldiers to 450,000 by 2018, the Marines’ active-duty end-strength from
202,000 to 182,000 by 2018, and the Navy’s active-duty end-strength from
327,300 to 323,100 by 2021.
Yet the demands on the
sequestration-era military – fighting jihadists in Iraq, Syria,
Afghanistan and North Africa, deterring Russia, China and North Korea,
serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense – are
no lighter than that of the pre-sequestration military.
This puts immense pressure on those who remain in uniform
and sends an unintended message that the military is somehow to blame
for our fiscal woes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Defense
spending is just 14.7 percent of the federal budget (down from 20
percent in 2011). In fact, Washington could have eliminated the entire
defense budget in 2013 ($633 billion that year), yet we still would have
had a budget deficit ($680 billion that year) – and wouldn’t have put a
dent in the national debt ($16.7 trillion that year).
If sequestration continues to hack away at the military,
as the American Enterprise Institute’s Thomas Donnelly warns, “(w)e, as a
civilian society, will have broken faith with the very small number of
Americans who go in harm’s way to defend us.”
That brings us to the quite serious issue of
disillusionment among the troops. The armed forces face a morale crisis
unlike any since the Vietnam era. A survey of active-duty troops by Military Times reveals “a force adrift,” with America’s defenders reeling from deep
cuts and feeling “underpaid, underequipped and underappreciated.”
Forty-four percent say pay is good/excellent, down from 87 percent in
2009; 45 percent say health care is good/excellent, down from 78 percent
in 2009; and 27 percent say the senior military leadership has their
best interests at heart, down from 53 percent in 2009. VA’s problems of
recent years have raised similar concerns among veterans, with 60
percent saying they are less confident in VA.
Finally, we come to the growing disconnect between the
U.S. military and the American people, including their elected
“Military illiteracy has inevitably worsened with each
succeeding generation” since the end of the draft and creation of the
all-volunteer force in 1973, argues Col. Kenneth Allard, former dean of
the National War College. Indeed, with only 2.2 million active-duty
troops and reservists serving a nation of 320 million, a tiny fraction
of Americans have family or friends in the military nowadays. That means
the overwhelming majority of Americans simply don’t understand – let
alone experience – the sacrifice, burdens and benefits of military
As author James Fallows observes, “Everyone ‘supports’ the
troops but few know very much about them.” Instead, most Americans are
so disconnected from their nation’s military that it’s something of an
abstraction to them.
That’s not the sort of relationship Americans should have
with their military, especially as the nation wages war against
transnational terrorists, digs in for Cold War II with a revisionist
Russia and braces for a dangerous decade with a rising China. “Battles
are won,” Bradley observed, “by soldiers living in the rains and
huddling in the snow. But wars are won by the great strength of a nation
– the soldier and the civilian working together.”
To reconnect the American people and their military, some
are calling for a return to the draft. The thinking in 1973 was that a
military comprising solely people who wanted to serve – even if it was
smaller – would be more effective than a military comprised of people
who would rather be somewhere else. The theory proved to be sound. For
almost 45 years, the all-volunteer force has defended America’s
interests and defeated America’s enemies.
To be sure, reinstating the draft would remind Americans
that they are connected to something more than their smartphones, and it
would certainly create a larger pool of veterans from which voters
could draw at election time. However, is that the purpose of the U.S.
military? Given the metastasizing threats confronting America, a case
can be made for reinstating the draft. But creating a training ground
for congressmen is not the best rationale. When we try to use the
military to achieve some non-military social aim – no matter how
worthwhile – we can do more harm than good. That may explain why Pew
polling reveals that 68 percent of all veterans – and 82 percent of
veterans who have served since 9/11 – oppose reinstating the draft.
mounting problems at home and mounting threats abroad, the American
people need Washington to make lots of tough decisions in the years
ahead. The U.S. military is trained to do exactly that. As Rep. Ruben
Gallego, D-Ariz., a veteran of Iraq, explained in an interview with U.S. News & World Report,
military service “taught me about how to plan and how to execute, how
to organize and, really, how to be bold.” Congress needs more veterans
to bring that boldness, that sense of purpose, to the policymaking
Yet this is about more than the sense of purpose veterans
possess; it’s also about respect for the elective institutions of
government. Gallup polling reveals that 72 percent of Americans have
high confidence in the military, while only 33 percent express
confidence in the presidency and just 8 percent express confidence in
Congress. Given those numbers, it stands to reason that Washington could
benefit from a larger infusion of veterans.
Historian John Keegan once observed that the world of the
warrior “exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong
to it.” Put another way, America’s warrior class is motivated by a
different set of values – honor, duty, service, country – than many of
the people it defends. If we are to maintain a republic of free people,
those values must inform the policymaking process.
Veterans are heroes, but they aren’t superheroes. They
can’t fix everything. Still, they have shown a willingness to put their
nation ahead of themselves. After fighting Nazis and kamikazes,
communists and jihadists, veterans understand that America has real
enemies – and those enemies are not the people on the other side of the
“Our challenges and our enemies don’t know us as
Republicans or Democrats,” Indiana’s Todd Young, a Marine Corps veteran,
said after winning a seat in the Senate.
“For any veteran who is considering running in the
future,” urges Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., a veteran of Iraq, “our country
and our Congress needs them to step up and serve yet again.”
Perhaps Zeldin’s words – and the nation’s many challenges – will inspire more veterans to do just that in the years ahead.