Congress and Military Service
Jack Murtha unleashed the chickehawk meme in the halls of Congress, castigating Patrick McHenry for vowing to continue the fight against Islamic extremists. (Video of McHenry’s remarks here.)
“It is easy to stay in an air-conditioned office and say, ‘I am going to stay the course,’ ” he said, angrily, after Mr. McHenry, who never served in the military, was finished. “It is the troops that are doing the fighting, not the members of Congress that are doing the fighting.”
Behind that exchange was a demographic reality: The debate, which has consumed the House and the Senate for the last two weeks, was largely conducted by men and women who have not served. Twenty-five percent of the House, and 31 percent of the Senate, are veterans, the lowest proportions since World War II, according to the Military Officers Association of America.
As I’ve often noted, this is hardly surprising. After all, military service was compulsory for able bodied males until 1973. Given that, McHenry aside, people typically don’t get elected to Congress until their mid-40s and early-50s, most current Members grew up in that all-volunteer period.
Does it make a difference? Clearly Mr. Murtha felt it did, sharply criticizing some nonveteran hawks — notably Karl Rove, the president’s chief political strategist — for not understanding the reality in Iraq, the toll of “deploying people two or three times,” the complexity of the mission. “It’s a very small segment that are making the sacrifices, and it’s pretty easy to say, ‘Let’s keep them over there,’ ” Mr. Murtha said in an interview.
Some analysts have argued that there are clear differences between veterans and nonveterans in attitudes toward the use of American military power. Christopher Gelpi, associate professor of political science at Duke and co-author of “Choosing Your Battles,” said his 1998-99 research showed that “veterans are very skeptical of the kind of mission that Iraq is: nation-building, a long commitment where our goals are really political more than military.” Moreover, Mr. Gelpi said, once the decision is made to intervene, veterans, like military officers, tend to lean toward using overwhelming force, an attitude of “let’s do it right and do it large scale, or let’s get out.”
Still, there were vets in the recent debate who supported the idea of a timetable on troop withdrawal, and vets who endorsed President Bush’s more open-ended commitment to American troops in Iraq (a debate that ended with votes beating back Democratic calls for withdrawal). For example, Mr. Murtha’s Republican colleague, Representative Duncan Hunter, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is also a decorated Vietnam vet, and led the charge for the Bush position.
Incidentally, Hunter’s son, Marine 1st Lt. Duncan Duane Hunter, served in Fallujah.
In fact, partisanship might explain more about lawmakers’ positions than military backgrounds. William Bianco, professor of political science at Indiana University, said his study on voting patterns showed that, “in the main, veterans look like nonveterans in Congress, on any dimension we can measure.”
And some historians dismiss the notion that military experience, in and of itself, grants lawmakers wisdom concerning war and peace. “Just because somebody in the 50’s got drafted for two years and spent 18 months as a typist at Fort Dix doesn’t necessarily give you any particular insight into issues of national security,” said Dennis Showalter, professor of history at Colorado College.
But David King, associate director at the Institute of Politics at Harvard, worries that there is, in today’s politics, a shortage of people “with a background in the service who can speak truth to both military and political power.” He cited Harry Truman, who served in France in World War I and rose to prominence as a senator in the early 1940’s from investigating military procurement.
Indeed, men like Mr. Murtha derive much of their influence — on Capitol Hill and with the public at large — from their status as tough-minded combat veterans. Mr. Murtha transformed the debate over the war last fall when he called for a withdrawal.
There’s something to this, although it’s a different thing than Murtha’s argument. There is too much deference to the military by those who have never served and seem embarrassed by that fact. There’s no other bureaucracy that commands that kind of power, including others, like policemen and firefighters, who put their lives on the line.
Some veterans say that combat experience — even more rare in Congress than general military experience — does make them different. “The world is a lot bigger after you’ve been in a war,” said Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska who lost a leg in Vietnam and won the Medal of Honor. “There’s a lot less black and white, and a lot more gray.”
Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and another decorated Vietnam vet, said combat experience “doesn’t mean we’re right, but we do bring a frame of reference when it comes to war.” He added, “When you’ve never experienced war it’s a little easier to be more cavalier about committing troops and not understanding the consequences of war.” Mr. Hagel, who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq but has voiced many doubts, was one of several veterans who seemed dismayed by the sharply partisan campaign-style oratory many politicians took to the debate. “Our men and women doing the fighting — and dying — deserve better,” he said on the Senate floor.
Both Hagel and Kerrey are right here. Still, that’s true of most everything that lawmakers weigh in on, from bankruptcy to abortion to disaster relief to business regulation to medical malpractice. Personal experience with almost anything gives and added perspective. But we don’t argue that only surgeons, bankers, debtors, cancer survivors, or others with specific experience be allowed to legislate on other important matters. Congress holds hearings, the Congressional Research Service performs rigorous studies, and personal and committee staffs gather other information. Politics doesn’t always have to be personal; indeed, there’s probably more danger in deciding on emotionalism rather than aggregate data.
Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern, calls this the era of “patriotism lite” on Capitol Hill — noting that not only are there few veterans, but also few lawmakers with children in the armed services. That first statistic, at least, might change — the war in Iraq has produced a wave of veterans running for office now.
I’m a huge fan of Moskos, whose work I’ve read for years and who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking with on several occasions. I disagree with him on the “patriotism lite” thing, however. While I’m often annoyed by people’s placing “Support the Troops” stickers on their cars and engaging in other meaningless displays of patriotism, the idea that everyone has a duty to head to the recruiting station strikes me as odd. We have a professional military and that life is not for most people. And, even if there were a mass surge in people wanting to enlist, there’s just not room for many more than we already have on active duty.
Moskos is absolutely right on the last part, though. The Iraq War is the first one in a generation that has been both large in scale and long-lasting. The number of combat veterans available for political candidacy is thus the highest it’s been since the Vietnam era. It’s almost a given that, 10-15 years from now, when those people have more seasoning, we’ll have more veterans in Congress than we do now.
Related stories below the fold.
Congress and Military Service