With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Veterans Go to Washington--So What?

For much of our history, a stint in the military, preferably as an officer, was a useful, even necessary, starting point for a political career. Mitch McConnell, for instance, has acknowledged that he joined the Army Reserve early in his career because "it was smart politically." (He lasted five weeks before being discharged for an eye condition and possibly thanks to political pull.)

In the military, young men, and more recently young women, practiced leadership skills, engaged in public service, made common cause with people of different backgrounds, and burnished their patriotic résumés, all of which was assumed to prepare them well for political life. That’s changed in recent years as the number of veterans in Congress has fallen significantly, but a change back may be coming as increasing numbers of Americans who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan run for office, while the opinions of veterans more generally have taken a distinctly negative turn on America’s forever wars.

While voters don't elect veterans just because they're veterans, polls consistently find that the public has more confidence in the military than in any other American institution. Not everyone who’s been in that military thinks the same way, of course, and veteran status is but one determinant in a politician's point of view. But a military usually has a powerful influence on its members, shaping their political, social, and decision-making attitudes and their ideas about the use of force as a means of achieving foreign-policy goals. Or so argue political scientists Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi who, in their influential book Choosing Your Battles, examined the impact of military experience on this country’s use of force abroad between 1816 and 1992, finding that it made a difference, sometimes a profound one. They concluded that the greater the proportion of veterans in the federal legislative and executive branches -- what they termed "the policymaking elite” -- the less likely the United States was to initiate wars of aggression. This "veteran effect," however, was anything but straightforward. While civilian elites were more likely to go to war for ideological, imperial, or moral imperatives, military elites leaned more toward pragmatism and a clearer examination of the situation on the ground as reasons for sending the military into battle.

Both groups, however, were convinced that force works and that the United States goes to war only when provoked (never by being provocative). Moreover, the authors found that, once a war started, the more veterans in leadership roles, the bloodier and longer the use of force, while civilian elites were more willing to place constraints on how the military was used. No surprise there: no military likes civilians telling it how to fight "its" wars, a tension that has appeared in the conflicts launched or supported by every recent administration.

Bear with me now because the research only gets more intriguing. An international study demonstrated that, as the number of women in a national legislature increases, countries are more likely to intervene militarily for humanitarian reasons, but not for other ones. Research also has confirmed that American presidents raised in the South have been twice as likely as other presidents to use force in international conflicts, were less likely to back down militarily, and were more likely to win.

These days, the American public apparently doesn't care much about veterans in the White House. Not counting George W. Bush's questionable turn in the Texas National Guard, the last executive who did active military service was Vice President Al Gore. The last two presidential candidates who were veterans -- John Kerry and John McCain -- lost to civilians and, of the four veterans who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, only Pete Buttigieg got any traction through referring to his military experience (often). For the record, Joe Biden, whose two sons enlisted, avoided the draft via student deferments and asthma, while Donald Trump, who appointed more recent active-duty military officers to senior policy positions than at any time since World War II -- before he fired most of them -- side-stepped military service with the world's most famous bone spurs.

Read entire article at TomDispatch