Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Only 20% of Congress Are Veterans; Down from 80% in the ’70s

 

Considering the rank partisanship of modern American politics, the bipartisan mourning of Sen. John McCain feels like something from a different era. His broad-based appeal is partly due to his centrist politics but primarily his unique background as a Naval aviator and prisoner of war speaks to voters’ collective memory. He was a rare politician who could speak of duty, honor, and sacrifice without a hint of postmodern irony.

Veterans used to be commonplace on Capitol Hill, but today they’re an endangered species. Using statistics compiled by the non-partisan Brookings Institution, I graphed the decline of servicemembers in the Congress and Senate over the past 50 years.

In the 1970s, more than 80 percent of Senators and 75 percent of Congressman had military experience. Today, only about 20 percent of either chamber are veterans. Precious few modern politicians were willing to put their lives on the line to serve the nation, especially when it might interfere with an Ivy League degree or a robust bank account.

This trend is disturbing to us veterans but it should disturb all citizens. The most important votes a Senator or Representative will ever cast involve matters of war and peace. To have a political class so divorced from the life-and-death consequences they inflict upon others is a bad omen for the future of representative government.

Perhaps more distressing is the lack of those unfashionable values — duty, honor, sacrifice — that empowered our greatest leaders to achieve our greatest victories.

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  1. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member

    I think the percentage of veterans in Congress in the 1970s has more to do with conscription than anything else. Most of the members would have been subject to the draft (and don’t forget that most of them were of an age where they would have served in WWII). The move to an all-volunteer military in the ’70s greatly reduced the number of veterans in all walks of life, not just politics.

    Just my $0.02.

    • #1
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:08 PM PDT
    • 29 likes
  2. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    You know what I love about the senate? It makes calculating percentages easy.

    • #2
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:08 PM PDT
    • 21 likes
  3. Richard Easton Member

    Math quibble – it’s down 75%-80% not 400%. This a common error. Let’s say that the number of people in an organization drops from 100 to 20. 20 is 20% of 100 so it’s dropped by 80%. The number of people can decrease by at most 100%.

    • #3
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:11 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  4. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    danok1 (View Comment):

    I think the percentage of veterans in Congress in the 1970s has more to do with conscription than anything else. Most of the members would have been subject to the draft (and don’t forget that most of them were of an age where they would have served in WWII). The move to an all-volunteer military in the ’70s greatly reduced the number of veterans in all walks of life, not just politics.

    Just my $0.02.

    Excellent point. Comparing the percentage of veterans in the general population to the percentage in Congress would be more revealing.

    • #4
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:20 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  5. Jon Gabriel, Ed. King
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Math quibble – it’s down 75%-80% not 400%. This a common error. Let’s say that the number of people in an organization drops from 100 to 20. 20 is 20% of 100 so it’s dropped by 80%. The number of people can decrease by at most 100%.

    My bad. The total number dropped from 401 members to 101 members. I’ve changed the headline. :)

    • #5
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:24 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. Richard Easton Member

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    danok1 (View Comment):

    I think the percentage of veterans in Congress in the 1970s has more to do with conscription than anything else. Most of the members would have been subject to the draft (and don’t forget that most of them were of an age where they would have served in WWII). The move to an all-volunteer military in the ’70s greatly reduced the number of veterans in all walks of life, not just politics.

    Just my $0.02.

    Excellent point. Comparing the percentage of veterans in the general population to the percentage in Congress would be more revealing.

    Post WW2 it was very important that a politician be a vet. Now the armed services are a much smaller % of the population. WW2 was a struggle against an existential danger to the US. Conflicts since then have not been of such a cosmic nature.

    • #6
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:24 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  7. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    John Kerry is a veteran, so having served is not an iron clad indicator of rational thought or honor.

    The number could go up by 1 if Ducey appointed you to fill McCain’s seat.

    • #7
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:34 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  8. Postmodern Hoplite Member

    Perhaps it is time to revisit an old idea, commonly associated with the ancient Hellenic concepts of citizenship – those that have shouldered the the responsibility for protecting the state (veterans) ought to be the ones making the decisions for the state (elected leaders)?

    Robert Heinlein made this concept a central point in his 1959 classic Starship Troopers. As described by Heinlein, in order to enjoy full voting franchise as a citizen, an individual had to volunteer and serve two years of military service in some capacity. (No conscription allowed.) The reasoning is that those who have demonstrated a psychological and moral predisposition towards protecting the community are better suited to making the tough decisions most likely to benefit that community. It’s certainly not a perfect concept, and the ancient yeoman farmers of Athens would have disputed just how “voluntary” their Hoplite militia service really was, but the idea is still a sound one.

    The problem is that our American society simply doesn’t need a standing military force so large as to encompass every adult person for two or three years of conscripted service. Therefore, simply re-instituting the Selective Service draft is not a viable option for all able-bodied adults. More over, the majority of modern adults of military-service age are not really “able-bodied”, either due to physical or developmental shortcomings. These could be corrected, but that is not an easy or quick “fix”.

    I have come to believe that we need to return to the Citizen-Soldier model of our earlier history. A re-designed and re-structured state militia system could be far more viable, efficient and economical than most current military policy experts would suggest. More important, it would be a shift in the right direction towards restoring the balance of military experience among our elected officials.

    • #8
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:35 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  9. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    These days, most veterans want to do meaningful, productive work when getting out of the military, not run for office.

    • #9
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:35 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  10. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    These days, most veterans want to do meaningful, productive work when getting out of the military, not run for office.

    Or they get a government job, which is mostly not meaningful or productive.

    • #10
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:38 PM PDT
    • Like
  11. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    danok1 (View Comment):

    I think the percentage of veterans in Congress in the 1970s has more to do with conscription than anything else. Most of the members would have been subject to the draft (and don’t forget that most of them were of an age where they would have served in WWII). The move to an all-volunteer military in the ’70s greatly reduced the number of veterans in all walks of life, not just politics.

    Just my $0.02.

    Excellent point. Comparing the percentage of veterans in the general population to the percentage in Congress would be more revealing.

    Post WW2 it was very important that a politician be a vet. Now the armed services are a much smaller % of the population. WW2 was a struggle against an existential danger to the US. Conflicts since then have not been of such a cosmic nature.

    I realize that. My point is that any discussion of the changing percentage of veterans in Congress should begin with a discussion of the changing percentage of veterans in the general population. 

     

     

    • #11
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:44 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  12. Doug Watt Moderator

    Arizona will have a chance to send another combat veteran to the Senate.

    • #12
    • August 29, 2018, at 4:58 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This is also why members of Congress feel more comfortable using the Armed Forces as a grand social experiment instead of as a superior fighting force designed to inflict maximum damage with minimal casualties.

    I’m not insistent on politicians who have served. But I want their kids to serve (and to be more than JAG officers and other POGs.) First, it stops them from thinking they’re military geniuses because they “fought the last war” and second, nothing concentrates the mind more than making life and death decisions on your kids, and not just other people’s.

    • #13
    • August 29, 2018, at 5:12 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  14. Brian Wyneken Member

    I turn 60 tomorrow, and I spent about half of that time in uniform. While that experience leads to an inclination to look favorably upon veterans as a general matter, I knew scoundrels enough to be cautious.

    • #14
    • August 29, 2018, at 5:12 PM PDT
    • 17 likes
  15. Skyler Coolidge

    The military has been discussing the civil-military divide as long ago as the mid-eighties.

    I think the percent in Congress is still higher than in the general population.

    • #15
    • August 29, 2018, at 5:22 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    @brianwyneken In the wake of the Great McCain Debate, what do you reckon is the Hero-to-Average Joe-to-Screwup ratio in the services?

    • #16
    • August 29, 2018, at 5:23 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Skyler: I think the percent in Congress is still higher than in the general population.

    7.4% of Americans have a military background.

    Army : 3.1%

    Navy: 1.7%

    USAF: 1.4%

    USMC: 0.8%

    The remaining in Coast Guard and other non-combat roles like Merchant Marine.

    • #17
    • August 29, 2018, at 5:33 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  18. Quietpi Member

    This low percentage of lawmakers with no military experience is, in my opinion, a big problem indeed. Far too often, members on both sides of the aisle display a breathtaking ignorance of the military. They could do something to make themselves smarter, like read Sun Tsu, or Clausewitz, or something. It’s obvious that they haven’t. And it doesn’t help that the Democrats are openly hostile to us.

    A huge problem with any sort of scheme that would bring people into the military for two or even three years is that the skills required of a modern soldier are not so quickly and easily acquired. Just about the time s/he begins to catch on to what is really going on, s/he’s out. For instance, it was in NCO academy before I learned that inspections weren’t about seeing if you knew how to make your bed.

    • #18
    • August 29, 2018, at 6:03 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. Brian Wyneken Member

    EJHill (View Comment):

    @brianwyneken In the wake of the Great McCain Debate, what do you reckon is the Hero-to-Average Joe-to-Screwup ratio in the services?

    On good days I resembled the second category.

    • #19
    • August 29, 2018, at 6:14 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  20. Brian Wyneken Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:

    Perhaps more distressing is the lack of those unfashionable values — duty, honor, sacrifice — that empowered our greatest leaders to achieve our greatest victories.

    I’ll try a for instance . . .:

    I think Senator Tom Cotton had a strong sense of those “unfashionable values” well before he ever entered the service as a commissioned officer at age 28. At age 18 he was not joining the Army, he was headed off to Harvard etc. etc. He likely had somewhere in mind a post-military political career when he joined, but a political career should be an honorable pursuit for someone with these values.

    I have know others who appear to be mainly interested in perpetuating their status, first realized when elected class president, and the whole military thing is little more than just a part of that. You can tell who they are – usually the ones gassing on about their service in a particular manner suggesting that their honor is unquestionable. John Kerry comes prominently to mind, but there are plenty others.

    I would agree that there are a lot of veterans who have a strong sense of these values. They’re mostly good people, but there are a lot of good people and not that many people can join the military these days. 

     

    • #20
    • August 29, 2018, at 6:49 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  21. Judge Mental Member

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):
    Robert Heinlein made this concept a central point in his 1959 classic Starship Troopers. As described by Heinlein, in order to enjoy full voting franchise as a citizen, an individual had to volunteer and serve two years of military service in some capacity. (No conscription allowed.) The reasoning is that those who have demonstrated a psychological and moral predisposition towards protecting the community are better suited to making the tough decisions most likely to benefit that community.

    A couple of common misconceptions here:

    Prior to the war, 95% of them were not military; there weren’t enough useful jobs for them, so many did makework jobs, such as literally counting a warehouse full of beans.

    And it was a demonstration of a willingness to put the good of society ahead of their own, by following orders for two years. A subtle but important distinction.

    • #21
    • August 29, 2018, at 6:55 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. George Townsend Inactive

    Thanks for an interesting and enlightening Post, Jon.

    • #22
    • August 30, 2018, at 3:23 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Tex929rr Coolidge

    Skyler (View Comment):

    The military has been discussing the civil-military divide as long ago as the mid-eighties.

    Huntington was mandatory reading when I was a cadet in the late 70’s, so maybe even longer ago. 

     

    • #23
    • August 30, 2018, at 6:01 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  24. Travis McKee Inactive

    A professional military’s alienation from a civilian government has been a pressing concern since Cromwell, but as the Cold War made a large permanent professional military necessary, folks just stopped talking about it, and now, we’ve largely forgotten it was ever an issue. 

    Well, it is, and it is a shame that callfor the civilian militia to curb the danger goes unheeded. If we all serve in the militia, then the gulf between the professional military and civilians shrinks. The same would apply to civilians and police, if we had a “police militia” to fulfill the same role. 

    I know the current reality of allowing small tribes of professional warriors grow alienated from the rest of society isn’t working. 

    • #24
    • August 30, 2018, at 6:15 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  25. Travis McKee Inactive

    By the way, I still remember the late Senator McCain’s 1999(?) article in Reader’s Digest addressing this very issue, calling for two years of mandatory (not necessarily military) service to remedy the issue. 

    I oppose conscription, but if a draft board called people to serve with an opt-out form available, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. 

    • #25
    • August 30, 2018, at 6:21 AM PDT
    • Like
  26. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member

    Travis McKee (View Comment):
    I oppose conscription, but if a draft board called people to serve with an opt-out form available, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. 

    How would this differ from the all-volunteer force we already have? Or is the “opt-out” some other form of mandatory national service?

    • #26
    • August 30, 2018, at 6:30 AM PDT
    • Like
  27. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):
    I have come to believe that we need to return to the Citizen-Soldier model of our earlier history. A re-designed and re-structured state militia system could be far more viable, efficient and economical than most current military policy experts would suggest. More important, it would be a shift in the right direction towards restoring the balance of military experience among our elected officials

    There was a lot of interest in this after 9-11-01. I think it has some merit.

    • #27
    • August 30, 2018, at 6:42 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  28. Tex929rr Coolidge

    Travis McKee (View Comment):

    By the way, I still remember the late Senator McCain’s 1999(?) article in Reader’s Digest addressing this very issue, calling for two years of mandatory (not necessarily military) service to remedy the issue.

    I oppose conscription, but if a draft board called people to serve with an opt-out form available, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

    Imagine a conscription law in the new millennium. Social work or elementary school teaching would end up as substitutes for military service.

     

     

    • #28
    • August 30, 2018, at 6:56 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  29. Tex929rr Coolidge

    In general, this problem has bothered me for a long time. When I discuss the military with people who haven’t served the total lack of understanding make it very difficult to discuss policy. They simply have no points of reference.

    A second issue is how much the military has changed. While the fundamentals endure, I wonder how much of my service in a time dominated by the Cold War truly applies nowadays. The existence of people like Reality Winner and Chelsea Manning makes me wonder.

    • #29
    • August 30, 2018, at 7:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  30. Skyler Coolidge

    Tex929rr (View Comment):

    Travis McKee (View Comment):

    By the way, I still remember the late Senator McCain’s 1999(?) article in Reader’s Digest addressing this very issue, calling for two years of mandatory (not necessarily military) service to remedy the issue.

    I oppose conscription, but if a draft board called people to serve with an opt-out form available, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

    Imagine a conscription law in the new millennium. Social work or elementary school teaching would end up as substitutes for military service.

     

     

    As much as I dislike public schools and the low quality of many teachers, I think it would get even worse if teachers were drafted. 

    • #30
    • August 30, 2018, at 8:31 AM PDT
    • 3 likes

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