Veterans Day: To regain trust, Congress should take a cue from US military

This Veterans Day, the military is one of America’s most trusted institutions; Congress is one of the least. Confidence in many public institutions is low because they lack a sense of duty, trust, loyalty, and teamwork – qualities US troops hold dear, and which all Americans can practice.

Samuel Hoffman/The Journal Gazette/AP
Korean War veterans salute the American flag as the National Anthem plays during their visit to Harris Elementary in Fort Wayne, Ind., Nov 8. Op-ed contributor Kent Eiler writes: 'I have served with many troops, many of whom, I’m sure, had different personal views than I have, but never, not once, did their views ever prevent us from accomplishing the mission.'

It’s Veterans Day 2012 and the US military is one of the country’s most trusted institutions. Seventy-five percent of respondents in a June Gallup poll either had a “great deal” of confidence in the military or “quite a lot” of confidence in it. By contrast, only 6 percent of respondents had a “great deal” of confidence in Congress, which finished at the bottom of the 16 institutions included in Gallup’s survey.

How is it that Americans have maintained deep confidence in our troops and veterans, while the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become unpopular?

For a service members to become veterans, indeed, to survive their introduction into the military, they must immediately accept that they are part of a team. It is upon that team that military men and women entrust their lives. They must be prepared to put aside any lingering misgivings and follow orders that, by extension, come from the American people. Failure to get along is not an option.

At first blush, that level of trust may seem incomprehensible to many Americans – but it shouldn’t. It should sound familiar. Thomas Jefferson, in laying the contours of a new Republic founded and developed upon humanitarian ideals, wrote: "We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he wasn’t just writing a creed for an all-volunteer army 200 years later, he was writing a pact. All Americans are a part of this pact. Our troops have rules in place to live that pact every day – but they don’t have to be the only ones that live that ethos. Any American can, and all of us should. Only 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform, but all Americans can live that ethos in their school, at their work, in their community center, and elsewhere.

The election season, when many of the country’s public institutions are prominently displayed, is finally over for this year. Part of the reason confidence in other public institutions is low is almost certainly because the qualities held dear by our troops – duty, trust, loyalty – are found to be wanting. During the election season members of these other public institutions take turns battering one other.

A great number of veterans are apolitical – but not because they don’t care about the state of American governance. Many care very deeply, but politics rewards and celebrates a different set of qualities than those America’s troops are taught to expect of themselves. Self-promotion, dispensing with integrity, and means justifying the ends are just some of the qualities antithetical to what troops are taught. 

Not all troops are selfless saints, but I believe my experience is similar to most. I have served with many troops, many of whom, I’m sure, had different personal views than I have, but never, not once, did their views ever prevent us from accomplishing the mission. That is what Americans see when they look at their military today, and it is what they long for in other public institutions.

It is not then what our troops accomplish or don’t accomplish on the battlefield that explains the respect they enjoy. The confidence Americans have in our military men and women comes from how they approach their responsibilities. Victory is lost if we lose sight of who we are, if we conduct ourselves in a manner inconsistent with our ideals. That’s true not only for our military, but for all of our other public institutions.

It is vital to the country’s long-term health that the other public institutions included in Gallup’s survey – Congress, banks, the Supreme Court, the presidency – regain strong levels of public trust. If those institutions are looking to inspire badly needed confidence, they could look no further than the qualities and the reasons we honor our troops this Veterans Day.

Kent Eiler is an attorney, veteran, and a captain in the United States Air Force Reserve. The views expressed are solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not reflect the official policy or position of any military service, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

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