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

Chickenhawk Meme

John Murtha

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. lily says:

    I don’t think you are understanding what the chickhenhawk meme is really about. The right (not everyone, of course, but many) has a pattern of attacking the patriotism of anyone not toeing the right wing party line on military issues, especially if the dissenter is a liberal. The pattern is to avoid the substance of the issue and instead, indulge in character assassination. A recent example is the attacks on Murtha. Another well known example is the orchestrated attack on former Senator Cleland who lost three limbs in Viet Nam and the attempts to make it look like he had caused his own injuries etc. The Swiftboat Liars and their apologists are the classic example. Liberals used to be simply stunned by the unfairness and unprincipled nature of this sort of behavior but in the last couple of years liberals have been fighting back. That’s where the chickhenhawk meme came from–people like Anne Coulter, Dick Cheney and proxies for George Bush are behaving badly when they attack the character or the service records of real vets and should be contradicted forcefully when they do. Pointing out their own failure to serve is a legitimate argument in the context of attacks on the character of real service people. (I realize the the Swiftbiboat Liars themselves were vets but the people in the media or on blogs who repeated and rationalized their lies mostly weren’t).
    It would be better of course to discuss the substance of issues rather than get into contests about who served and who didn’t and whether or not that service makes their opinion more or less valid etc. But this is a case where the right wing needs to put its own house in order and cease the attacks on patriotism of anyone not within their ranks. Right now is a great opportunity to start. For the last two weeks there has been a huge amount of blathering about cut-and-run Democrats (not on this site, thanks!). Then it turns out the Bush administration has already signed off on a plan to withdraw more troops than the Democrats requested, based on firmer dates than the Democrats suggested! Apologies from Republicans in Congress? Am I hearing any? And the Iraqi government is putting together a plan for withdrawal (not based on dates, which the Sunnis wanted, but the matter is being debated there), and turns out the Bush administration is fine with this. Well so am I. But I not going to call the Bush admin. names for seeking a plan for exiting. They need to apologize to the Democrats for all the name calling that came out of the administration when the Democrats told them they need to get a plan.
    The chickhenhawk meme is a necessary response to right wing demagoguery and it will recede when the demagoguery recedes.

  2. JKB says:

    What we have a lack of in Congress is leaders not veterans. A leader weighs the available information and makes an informed decision. He doesn’t blow about with every gust of opinion. She stands by her decisions but will give when her suppositions are superseded. They depend on experts for advice but are skeptical of that advice.

    Most politicians these days are unwilling to make the hard choices and stand by only their own aggrandizement. Veteran status doesn’t give mystical insight into war but it does make it hard to retain uninformed biases against the military. War is bad, no one but the most pumped up novice believes otherwise. Leadership is getting through bad things with the least damage so that a better situation is realized.

  3. Steven Plunk says:

    According Lily since I have not served in the armed forces I have no right to state the facts concerning the conduct of anyone who has served.

    I cannot speak of how Max Cleland was injured, I cannot speak of the controversy surrounding John Kerry’s battle wounds, apparently I cannot be a part of the democratic process of discussion and debate.

    Some forget that these issue were raised when Kerry and Cleland staked out the morally superior ground since they have served. No one can do that. We are all equals or what is our democracy about?

    Facts are facts and if anything thrown out there is false everyone has a chance to refute it. If we are going to exclude a certain portion of the populace from the freedom to speak and be heard where will we end it?

    The chicken hawk argument is what people fall back on when they run out of ideas and facts. There is no excuse for using it. None.

  4. Stevely says:

    So lily, your word salad boils down to “tu quoque.” That’s class.

  5. legion says:

    So, lily describes ‘chickenhawking’ as ad hominem attacks on the speaker’s character to avoid dealing with the substance of the critique, and the immediate reaction is a couple of ad hominem attacks. That’s classic – point to lily!


    There is too much deference to the military by those who have never served and seem embarrassed by that fact.

    Actually, I think that’s completely the opposite of the problem we have – too many people in Congress & the White House who have never served and show exactly _no_ deference to the military: Discarding their advice and experience whenever it conflicts with what those in power want to do. They do this with confidence that those in uniform will never call them on their bullshit, even when the ill-advised projects fail miserably & those who launched them blame everyone around them (inclulding the military itself) rather than take responsibility for their own poor decisions…

  6. McGehee says:

    Chickenhawk-meme retailers like Lily can “clarify” all they want, but the logical conclusion of the meme is that civilian control of the military goes out the window.

    And these people claim the NSA data-mining activities are dangerous.

  7. Lily,

    Here is another take on “questioning patriotism

    One relevant portion:
    “A true patriot doesn’t ignore the needs of the nation, nor its citizenry, and does not systematically revoke the very freedoms our democracy was founded upon. If you support the Bush regime, what it stands for, and what it has done, you are no patriot.”

    It would seem the questioning of patriotism is something the left does.

    I currently have two close relatives serving. That puts my families participation above the national average. But that doesn’t give me any greater or lesser right to discuss the war on terror.

    When I complain about the NYT disclosing classified information on how we conduct the war on terror I don’t feel that I have a need to be one of those who is most directly threatened by the weapons purchased to think that making it harder to track down the terrorists finances is a bad idea.

    It is one thing to disagree with the choices the democratic process makes in selecting our leaders. It is another to help those who want to kill us.

  8. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘I donâ??t think you are understanding what the chickhenhawk meme is really about.’

    One thing you can count on like the sun setting in the West is libs telling you that you don’t understand the most obvious things in the world.