FOR TWENTY years, Elaine Luria sailed the seas with America’s navy, rising to the rank of commander. In January 2019, two years after retiring, she entered the House of Representatives as a member for Virginia’s 2nd district, one of 96 veterans in the 116th Congress. Veterans like Ms Luria remain over-represented in politics—they make up 7% of the adult population but nearly three times that share of Congress—but their numbers have dwindled over the years. That reflects electoral attitudes to military service that are more ambivalent than America’s valorisation of veterans might suggest. It may also have consequences for the way in which America wages and scrutinises its wars.
For much of American history, soldiers have dominated the country’s legislative branch. The first Congress, in 1789, was stacked with veterans of the revolutionary war: almost three in five of its members had fought in that campaign or previous ones. In the 20th century, a steady succession of wars in Europe, Korea and Vietnam, fuelled by a national draft, supplied an even larger stream of lawmakers with military experience. Between 1965 and 1975, seven out of every ten members of both houses were veterans, rising to four-fifths of the Senate in the latter year (see chart).
Their ranks have thinned ever since. Veterans lost their majority status in the House at the turn of the 1990s and in the Senate, a bastion of war heroes, a decade later. By the time America was at war in Libya in 2011, they had dwindled to less than a fifth of the House and quarter of the Senate. The last two veterans of the second world war retired from Congress in 2014; the last to fight in Korea did so last year. Today 18% of the House and 19% of the Senate have seen military service. Veterans are now comfortably outnumbered by lawyers, bankers and businesspeople, having dwarfed those professions three decades ago.
The obvious explanation for this reversal of fortunes is that, with the end of the draft in 1973 and a shrinking army, there are fewer veterans to elect. There were over 26m of them in 2000 (13% of the adult population); now there are 18m today (7%). But their share of seats in Congress has fallen even faster than their share of the population. Part of the answer is that women, who entered Congress in growing numbers beginning in the late 1980s, are under-represented in the armed forces, making up just 16.5% of the army.
Another factor is that the cost of a campaign has spiralled over the years, says Rebecca Burgess of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank. Veterans with limited savings may not be able to raise the $2m it costs for a successful House race in 2018, or the $15.7m for a Senate seat. And because today’s soldiers and sailors tend to run for office more quickly after leaving service than their counterparts who served in Vietnam, this can leave them with weaker political networks and less knowledge of local political issues. Though Ms Luria represents a navy-dominated district of Virginia in which she put down roots 20 years ago, she points out that many of her peers, shunted around the country and the world, might find it harder to feel the call of service to a particular community.
Venerable veteran organisations, like the American Legion, which once played a big role in fostering local networks and nurturing candidates for office, have “atrophied” as the population of former servicemen and women has shrunk, says Phillip Carter, a professor at Georgetown’s law school, and the veterans director for the Obama campaign in 2008. A new breed of more partisan veteran groups, which serve as political-action committees and “farm teams” for political talent, has emerged since 9/11, he says.
When veterans do run for office, their service is respected but not necessarily rewarded. In an ad for her re-election campaign this year, Ms Luria, like most such candidates, appears in uniform, and plays up her military credentials. That is not surprising. In surveys, the public are considerably more enthusiastic about the idea of a veteran candidate than about business executives or religious leaders, according to Jeremy Teigen of Ramapo College of New Jersey. But studies by Mr Teigen and others show that these feelings wane at the ballot box.
In the first post-9/11 elections for the House of Representatives, in 2002, veteran Democrats collected just 2% more of the vote than non-veteran Democrats, even when accounting for other factors. In 2006 veteran Republicans took 1.3% more of the vote than non-veteran Republicans, amounting to a few thousand votes at most. At the last midterm elections in 2018, veterans had no edge at all.
Those congressional trends reflect a wider story, and perhaps a deeper ambivalence in America’s view of its armed forces. Ten of the first 11 post-war presidents were veterans. Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running-mate means that no presidential or vice-presidential candidate in the three elections from 2012 to 2020 will have had any military service at all. Indeed, every combat veteran running for the presidency since 1990 has lost.
“What to me is going on is the long shadow of the Vietnam war,” says Ms Burgess. A generation of Americans, she suggests, could not bring themselves to elect either John Kerry, an opponent of the war, or John McCain, who believed the war was winnable, because to do so would be to settle on a view of that traumatic conflict. Mr Carter recounts a story of Mr Kerry describing this phenomenon to him as a “bamboo ceiling”.
Veterans today are often honoured more for their suffering than their valour on the battlefield, he observes, pointing to the likes of Tammy Duckworth (pictured), a Democratic senator from Illinois who lost her legs as a helicopter pilot in Iraq. Ms Burgess compares the present moment to the electoral “exhaustion” with veterans after the first world war: none of America’s five presidents from 1913 to 1945 had any military experience.
That might be seen as a welcome development. In June, as Donald Trump threatened to send troops into American cities, Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, lamented that “too many foreign and domestic policy choices have become militarised”. Yet the paradox is that the absence of military experience among lawmakers and leaders could compound the problem. Though many of the Senate’s most bellicose members, like Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham, are veterans, a study published in 2002 by Christopher Gelpi and Peter Feaver found that, between 1816 and 1992, as the percentage of veterans in Congress and the White House decreased, the probability of America getting into a military tangle actually went up.
Contrary to stereotype, those who have never worn a uniform are typically more willing to countenance intervention for humanitarian or nation-building purposes, says Danielle Lupton of Colgate University in New York state, though they get skittish when there are casualties. Veterans—whether they have seen combat or not—tend to be more restrained, though favour overwhelming force once a conflict begins.
Such attitudinal differences can have important legislative consequences, too. A paper by Ms Lupton analysing votes in the House of Representatives during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq finds that lawmakers with military experience are more likely to favour congressional oversight of operations and limits on deployments.
Ms Luria, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, points out that many veteran lawmakers have expressed concerns about the “old and outdated” authorisation, passed hastily in September 2001, on which the Pentagon relies for many of its current deployments. “Veterans in Congress are in a unique position to ask for accountability without having their loyalty questioned,” says Ms Lupton, who points to the late Mr McCain as an example.
Even if veterans no longer stand astride American politics as they once did, they continue to play an outsized role. That is clearest in primary elections, in which parties choose their candidates. Regardless of whether they win or lose in November elections, veterans are disproportionately likely to put themselves forward as candidates in the first place and to be selected by parties, says Mr Teigen. A country founded on a fear of standing armies has not lost its affinity for those who marched in its ranks.
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