Why Are U.S. Vets MIA In U.S. Politics?

Why are military veterans so under-represented in Congress? Should we care?

  • Share
  • Read Later
DoD photo / MCS 1st Class Mark O'Donald, U.S. Navy

The U.S. military plays more of a ceremonial role during inaugurations, like 2009's, than its veterans do in the nation's legislative or executive branches.

Why are military veterans so under-represented in Congress? Should we care?

In “An Army Apart,” TIME’s Mark Thompson notes “the share of veterans among lawmakers has fallen from 77% in the late 1970s to 22% now.”  This lack of military representation in Congress has painful consequences.  Richard Kohn, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says lawmakers “don’t have a sense of the (military’s) institutions and the culture, so they’re less likely to exercise insightful or determined oversight.”

Some blame Ivy League schools‘ banning ROTC — Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — on their campuses for more than four decades, many until last year. That meant that graduates from these “elite” institutions — men and woman who traditionally would be most likely to become future legislators and decision-makers — were for many years under-represented within the military itself.

With Ivy League schools now allowing ROTC on their campuses again (with the exception of Brown University), the hope is that in time, as more students cycle through the ROTC programs at these institutions, more veterans will begin to get elected to Congress.

Some national security experts have been outspoken advocates about this very issue. Since leaving active duty as a Marine captain in 2010, Matt Pottinger, the president of China Six and a former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has stressed the need for graduates from our elite colleges to join the military:  “America would be better served if more government decision-makers had military experience.”  Donning the uniform is an important step in creating well-rounded, multi-talented men and woman who can be entrusted with our nation and its defense.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Pottinger explains that leaders with military experience are much less likely to send American troops into combat.  “Few Americans realize it, but our leaders who lack military experience tend to be more hawkish than leaders who have served in the military.  Leaders who are military veterans have been, on the whole, more reluctant to intervene in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Iraq, and now Libya.”

That is an important point to consider as we go to the polls on Tuesday. Hopefully veterans, from both sides of the aisle, will win election and bring a measure of rational practicality to our legislature that will discourage needlessly intervening in unnecessary conflicts.

But what about the presidential race?

Should military service be a prerequisite for seeking the highest office? Obviously neither President Obama nor GOP challenger Mitt Romney served in uniform. Should we be concerned that our next commander in chief will have never been a military commander or chief?

Obama has a couple national-security feathers in his cap, namely the killing of Osama bin Laden, but when it comes to places like Benghazi and Helmand province, he seems to struggle with clearly defining our mission or a roadmap for success. Romney is every bit as wet behind the ears as Obama was four years ago when it comes to national security.

So our primary concern should be that whoever wins the White House, that he surrounds himself with qualified and credentialed experts that have the authority, and the confidence, to stand up to the President and provide him unfiltered national-security advice. The last thing we need as a country is a President that wants to prove his national-security mettle by leading us into (another) avoidable conflict.

Let’s hope that more and more veterans from the “New Greatest Generation,” both Democrats and Republicans, feel compelled to serve their country again as elected officials.  Our nation stands to benefit from the judgment, perspective, and resolve of new battle-tested veterans that seek higher office.

Honorable and courageous men like Hunter Hill, a former Army Ranger running for Georgia’s state senate, have already taken the initiative to run for public office. We can only hope that other selfless leaders of this new greatest generation can be convinced to once again serve their country in Her time of need, and help bring some poised resolve back to Washington.