Every significant war produces a generation of politicians, and each generation reflects the war that forged it. Bill Clinton, a consummate student of politics, used to joke to his White House staff, with no small bit of truth, that "if you were a Civil War general from Ohio in the late nineteenth century, you stood a fifty percent chance of becoming president." World War II yielded a bountiful crop of politicians, including seven presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush) and dozens of congressmen; ninety-two veterans were elected to the first Congress after the war's end. In contrast, seven years after the United States left Vietnam, only four Vietnam veterans were in Congress. Even these few, though, have made their presence felt: the first to be elected was John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who set off a storm in November when he called on the Bush administration to withdraw troops from Iraq.
What sort of impact might Iraq War veterans have on Congress? Raw numbers aside, it stands to reason that veterans of unpopular wars like Vietnam and Iraq can have a greater immediate effect in Washington than those of popular wars like World War II. Although veterans of any war tend to be held in high esteem, only wars that voters perceive the United States to be losing awaken the type of anti-Washington sentiment that is suddenly so widespread.
And yet that did little to put Vietnam veterans in office three decades ago. What's different about this war is how veterans perceive, and in turn are perceived by, the Democratic Party. The antiwar movement during Vietnam (and by extension the Democratic Party) was heavily anti-GI as well. But even the most strident antiwar faction of today's party is unquestionably pro-soldier. "An Iraq veteran doesn't carry the baggage that a Vietnam veteran carried in liberal circles," says Charles Moskos, a sociologist specializing in military issues. Judging by the willingness of today's veterans to run as Democrats, the feeling is mutual.
Rightly or wrongly, the current crop of veterans seems to be inoculated against the standard criticism of Democrats as weak on national security. And most of the voters I encountered appeared to look at service in Iraq or Afghanistan as not just a desirable credential but one that confers unchallengeable moral standing—no small thing at a time when ethical transgressions promise to be central to the fall elections.
It seems too neat to be mere coincidence—though it must be—that a few of the current Democratic veterans are pitted against some notorious Republican grotesques. In Pennsylvania's tenth district Don Sherwood, a sixty-four-year-old married Republican incumbent, made headlines last year for allegedly beating his twenty-nine-year-old mistress. (The case was settled.) He faces a challenge from Chris Carney, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves who at the time was coordinating counterintelligence activities in the Middle East. In North Carolina, Tim Dunn is running against the incumbent Republican Robin Hayes, who managed the considerable feat of making John Kerry look Churchillian when he publicly vowed to vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which would hurt the district's manufacturing sector, and then knuckled under to last-minute pressure from the administration. The most arresting example of a heroic veteran could be a Democratic candidate for the race in Illinois's sixth district, Tammy Duckworth, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Iraq War who lost both legs and shattered an arm when she was shot down.
Of course, veterans are no more immune than anyone else from the quotidian demands of a congressional challenge. Given their straitlaced demeanor and the service-and-sacrifice nature of their career, the ones I met seemed particularly ill at ease asking for money. Still, they have cause for hope. In the final hour Paul Hackett's Ohio campaign caught fire as Democrats across the country learned of his campaign and, with the aide of activist blogs and Web sites, pumped in nearly half a million dollars. The ability of his successors to repeat that performance will go a long way toward determining if this latest charge of candidate veterans is a skirmish or the first wave on the beach.