Veterans go to Washington

If veteran-legislators were to use their capacity for leadership, Congress could take on its true constitutional responsibility as the custodian of war—and peace—and life in this country could change accordingly.


If you still follow the mainstream media, you’re probably part of the 38% of registered voters who knew something about the op-ed Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) published in the New York Times early in June, exhorting the president to use the Insurrection Act to “restore order to our streets.” This was in response to what he called “anarchy” but others saw as peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. And yet that op-ed was actually less incendiary than an earlier tweet of Cotton’s demanding “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters” or his Fox News call to send the 101st Airborne onto the streets of America.


Anger at the decision to run that op-ed exploded at the Times. While there are certainly grounds for umbrage over giving Cotton’s screed such blue-chip journalistic real estate, the take-away for me was that a senator and military veteran who had sworn to uphold the Constitution in both capacities was demanding that soldiers patrol American streets in that protest moment. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. Cotton doesn’t seem to have met a fight he doesn’t relish. Still, it got me thinking about what difference, if any, veterans make in Congress when it comes to whether (and how) the U.S. military is sent into battle.

The answer matters now, as many veterans will be on the ballot in November, including the challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And veterans, we were told, are just what the doctor ordered. Back in 2018, in a Baltimore Sun op-ed promoting the idea of veterans running for Congress, retired four-star Army General Wesley Clark wrote that, because veterans “know the same sense of duty, commitment to results, and the integrity and discipline they have been trained to live by,” they are “uniquely well-positioned to fix” a broken Washington.

High on the list of brokens is American war-making, so I’d like to think that veteran-legislators, when in a position to do something about it, would use those qualities Clark extols to push Congress—and the White House—toward a less belligerent foreign policy. Veterans bring with them the authority of having been there. They know what it means to live with the consequences of congressional actions. They know the costs of war, especially the senseless wars of this century. And, increasingly, they’re fed up. Yet Congress, including its veteran-members, has allowed the U.S. military to stay mired in those conflicts, which continue largely off-stage as if propelled by some mysterious force everyone is powerless to stop.

What, then, has been the actual influence of the veterans now in Congress on this country’s war policy? For the twenty-first century, remarkably enough, the simple answer is: not much. It hasn’t always been this way, though, and could change again. Predicting history in the making is a fool’s errand.

The veteran effect

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.

Authorizing war

While the president as commander-in-chief is empowered to determine how wars are conducted, the Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress, which has made a formal declaration in only five wars throughout American history. At the end of the (never formally declared) Vietnam War, heated debate over the president’s role in deploying troops led to the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973. Theoretically,it restricts a president from launching a military excursion abroad without informing Congress and getting congressional consent within 60 days. In this century, however, presidents have easily skirted such limitations. (Examples: Barack Obama in his Libyan intervention, Donald Trump in his bombing of Syria.) Meanwhile, Congress itself has funded any number of congressionally undeclared wars since 1973.

In this century, with that all-important power to fund wars, Congress has acted lavishly indeed. The current Pentagon budget, at almost $730 billion, is about 13 times the State Department’s, an indication of what’s truly central (and not) to U.S. foreign policy. Such budgets are authorized by the Armed Services Committees of both houses of Congress. At the moment, veterans make more than half of the Senate’s committee and more than one-third of the House’s.

Still, it’s tricky to judge the role and effect of the post-9/11 crop of veteran-legislators when it comes to influencing American war-making policies, since there are so relatively few of them. Their number has been in decline since the early 1970s, when nearly three-quarters of congressional representatives had been in the military, usually in combat. Now, that number is 17%: 17 veterans in the Senate (excluding five-week McConnell) and 75 in the House (including the nonvoting delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands). They come from 39 states, about two-thirds of them are Republicans, nearly all are white, most were officers, seven are women,and fewer than half were in combat. Small as their percentage may be, it’s still about twice that of veterans in the general population.

In a phone interview last month, Dan Caldwell, former executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a Koch-affiliated advocacy group, maintained that, while military service informs politicians’ views of war, it’s not a good indicator of their stance on foreign policy. I’ve thought that a better test might be voting patterns on authorizing war—if only such votes existed in recent years. Unfortunately, they’ve been rare indeed.

On September 18, 2001, Congress overwhelmingly approved an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against those the president might determine responsible for the 9/11 attacks, which turned out to mean an invasion of, and never-ending war in, Afghanistan. (Never mind that most of the hijackers who carried out the attacks that day were Saudis.) Everyone in Congress voted for that AUMF except the prescient Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), who had never served in the military and was concerned that the resolution would offer a blank check for limitless war, just as it proved to do.

The vote in October 2002 for a second AUMF, this one functionally preparing the way for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq the following spring, was at least modestly more controversial, passing the Senate by a vote of 77 to 23. Of the 38 then-senators who were veterans, 31 supported it. According to the Congressional Research Service, those two authorizations have been invoked ever since to cover at least 41 military actions across significant parts of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. The United States military has not won a sustained peace, nor achieved any of its long-term goals, through a single one of those conflicts.

Tracking congressional action on AUMFs, troop levels, arms sales, and escalating tensions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and other countries in Africa and elsewhere requires a finely tuned political GPS, which Congress has hardly had in these years. (Remember when members of the Senate were stunned to discover that this country even had troops in Niger after four of them died in a clash with a terror group there?) In the Trump years, Congress has seemed to grow more active on the subject of America’s global conflicts mainly when annoyed at being openly and insultingly bypassed or slighted. For example, when the administration glossed over the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 or when it didn’t alert Congress before the president ordered the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani in a drone strike early this year.

In April 2019, in a rare bipartisan rebuke to President Trump, both houses of Congressinvoked the War Powers Act to end U.S. support for the Saudi military and involvement in the ongoing war in Yemen. The president, however, vetoed the resolution and a Republican-controlled Senate failed to override him. As it turned out, none of that really mattered since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used an emergency provision in the Arms Export Control Act to allow American companies to sell $8.1 billion in arms primarily to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. According to the New York Times, Congress has never successfully blocked an arms sale, but that didn’t keep it from trying again that July, sometimes with veteran-members like Ted Lieu (D-CA) in the lead. That resolution was vetoed, too. Steve Linick, until May the Inspector General at the State Department, was said to be investigating that huge arms sale when Trump fired him, reportedly at Pompeo’s urging.

Strange bedfellows

On these and other issues of war, nearly all the veterans in Congress simply voted with their party. Yet, in the future, questions of how long to continue this country’s never-ending wars have the potential to forge unexpected alliances among them. That could be true even if they arrive at the same position for different reasons, as I discovered in conversations with some independent-minded veterans.

For instance, Warren Davidson, a West Point graduate, former Army Ranger, and the congressman from a solidly Republican district in Ohio, is one of the few veterans who, contrary to his party, voted consistently in 2019 to end U.S. association with the war in Yemen. He also took a stand this year against a future war with Iran. To understand his reasoning, you need to look at his personal history. He retired from the Army in 2000, in part, he told me, because the lack of a coherent strategy in Kosovo, along with Congress’s refusal to vote on U.S. involvement there, seemed all wrong to him. He cited costly and, to his mind, unnecessary projects, while the troops sent to fight that incursion went in ill-prepared. “I was like, can’t we just focus on what the military exists for? Which is fighting wars.”

Almost two decades later, a war he’s definitely done supporting is the one that started with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and continues without, as far as he’s concerned, either resolution or a strategy to end it. “I don’t know if we’re going to eventually vote onAfghani statehood,” he jokes to me, before turning serious and adding, “If we’re not going to leave, what are we still doing there?”

I talked as well to Will Goodwin, director of government relations at VoteVets, a political action committee for progressive veteran-candidates who believes that “there’s near universal agreement that the executive branch has far exceeded the intent of the 2002 AUMF.” Yet, to our shared frustration, nothing changes. Last year, VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America joined in a startling alliance across the right-left divide in veteran politics to push for a rethinking of Washington’s foreign and military policies, beginning with the removal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Echoing the findings of scholars Feaver and Gelpi, Concerned Vets argues on its website for a new realism and restraint in deploying American military power globally and concludes: “As the greatest nation in the world, America shouldn’t fight endless wars.”

Goodwin and Caldwell each cite a recent Concerned Vets national poll that found 57% of veterans believe this country should be less militarily engaged in conflicts around the world. For a while now, majorities of them have felt that neither the Afghan nor Iraq wars were worth fighting. Among such vets, “interventionist” and “restrained” may be replacing “hawk” and “dove” as the terms du jour, but Caldwell agrees when I suggest that Congress—including many of its veteran-members—is now generally out-hawking the U.S. military. Think of it as the veteran conundrum.

While a voting record tells us something, it can be a reductive way of assessing a politician’s thinking. It doesn’t allow for the long (or, in the case of America’s wars, even longer) game. Much of the reluctance of veteran-politicians to buck their parties on war-making arises from the increasingly divisive partisan politics of this country. Republican politicians, in particular, may fear that an antiwar vote could come back to haunt them and representatives in both parties have loyalties to military contractors who support their campaigns or do business in their districts.

For all that, it’s hard not to add lack of courage to the mix—not exactly the greatest compliment you can pay a military veteran. Coming to terms with the role of war in foreign policy requires serious and sustained attention to a subject many politicians and voters have shown themselves eager to ignore for years now. The reasons for the current state of perpetual war are complex, but they’re not inexplicable. If veteran-legislators were to use their capacity for leadership, Congress could take on its true constitutional responsibility as the custodian of war—and peace—and life in this country could change accordingly.


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