The troubling dearth of military vets in Congress

The new congress continues a troubling trend: There are fewer senators and representatives who have had military service than in any recent Congress. Military service is hardly a guarantor of wisdom about national security policy. Nor can any one veteran-legislator bring a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of the US military. But, a Congress without military veterans loses perspective critical to national security. In some situations we might lose an understanding of what support the military needs. Conversely, the veteran-legislator can provide a valuable reality check on the Pentagon representative willing to overstate the military's case as he briefs Congress. The veteran-legislator who has seen the perfect military plan unravel, is a useful policymaker. Finally, the ultimate decision to place young men and women at mortal risk for national objectives is validated when some of the decisionmakers have themselves faced such an obligation. The percentage of veterans has declined in each of the last five Congresses. In the 102nd Congress, which endorsed the commitment of US forces to Operation Desert Storm, half of the members were military veterans. In the new Congress, 30 percent are veterans. This decline will almost certainly continue over the next decade. The likelihood of military service for a legislator is primarily determined by age. And legislators who came of age following the end of the draft in 1973 and the adoption of the All Volunteer Force rarely have military experience. Within a decade, it's likely even the Armed Services Committees will be led by men and women who have never served in uniform. The 106th Congress presents another troubling phenomenon: a shift of military experience predominantly to the Republican Party. Legislators departing from the 105th Congress, typically by retirement, included a disproportionate number of Democrats who were military veterans. The new Congress includes about 100 GOP members with military experience, compared with about 65 Democratic veterans. And that dominance is likely to continue - of those rare legislators with military service born in 1955 or after, all five are Republicans. The difference in military experience creates the perception of a pro-military and an anti-military party. A small, but revealing, example of the fraying of non-partisanship on military issues took place in the House's impeachment hearings. While history will assess the implications of major combat taking place at the same time as the impeachment of the commander in chief, it is already clear that the GOP majority appeared comfortable in raising the issue of the president's credibility in calling for the air attack of Iraq. Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde, a World War II Navy veteran, explored the impact of the proceedings on the armed forces with fellow Republican Sam Johnson of Texas. Mr. Johnson, a decorated career Air Force officer observed that "our military fighting men want the Congress to carry on their constitutional responsibilities every day." He seemed confident of his ability to speak for the military forces and their desire for Congress to carry on with the impeachment proceedings. With rare exception, the uniformed members of the armed services have been superbly respectful of civilian control. However, the quality of that control must be subjected to increased public scrutiny. The realities of the 21st century will heighten the role of America's armed forces as the world's leading military force. At the same time, oversight of the US military forces will increasingly be supplied by political and cultural elites without actual military service. It will, therefore, be more important than ever that the US public enter into discussion of military policy. Donald N. Zillman is a professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law, at Portland. He served in the US Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

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