Veterans in Politics: ‘They Are Your Best Bet’

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Following this item on a new PAC that is supporting “young veterans” running for Congress, and this round of reader response (pro and con), another set of reactions.

First, a reader with an angle I had not thought about, involving the way people considering a life in politics handle their first decade or so of adulthood. The reader’s conclusion is, “If you want people in Congress who have done something else in their lives besides politics … veterans are probably your best bet.” The case:

I wonder if the "advantage" of having a new generation of veterans entering  Congress (and to the extent it is an advantage, it certainly doesn't outweigh the downsides of the policy choices that made all of these people veterans), is that it creates a path to a political career that isn't this:   

The thing about veterans is they  are often making a career move in their mid 30s or early 40s … prime age to make a first run for Congress, and an age at which much of the rest of the population is fairly locked into their career path.  

I'm 34...there's no way I could take the time off of work for a campaign with no guarantee of a job at the end, and no way I would let go of the job security I have for the uncertainty of a life in politics.

If you want people in Congress who have done something else in their lives besides politics, who are average enough Americans to need to worry about getting their monthly paychecks and job security, veterans are probably your best bet.

Next, from another reader, a more skeptical view of the effect of a military background:

I respect the service of these men and women as well as the With Honor mission.  But the emphasis on military service as some sort of qualification for elected office troubles me.

In the first place, I don’t think that the military experience doesn’t, in and of itself, make one a better congressperson or senator.  And certainly, veterans don’t have any sort of entitlement to political office.

People enter the military for a variety of reasons.  Certainly, some join out of a genuine desire to serve, to “do their duty.”

But others join because it’s a family tradition, or because it’s an alternative to jail, or to escape an oppressive civilian life.  There are also some—and I suspect that Tom Cotton and former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens fall into this category—who join as part of a cynical career plan to get elected president.

Trump didn’t serve, and notoriously evaded the draft.  But neither of the three presidents who preceded him served either (I discount GWB’s National Guard duty which itself was an alternative to real service during wartime).

And while there are plenty of reasons to find McCain a more admirable person than Trump, I was troubled by the constant comparison McCain’s military experience to Trump’s lack thereof. His service and undoubted heroism as a prisoner of war did not make McCain a saint, nor did Trump’s failure to serve make him a devil.

I’m much more interested in the positions on the issues taken by a candidate, by what the person’s full adult career says about their commitment to public service, by his or her education and demonstrated intelligence, by his or her relative honesty in campaigning and serving in government.

Military service is a small part of this and not necessarily a defining one, and I find slightly offensive campaign pitches which seem to rely almost entirely on the candidate’s military service, as though that alone entitles the candidate to my vote.

Finally for this installment, a Boomer-era reader on the varied effects of a veteran perspective:

I will start with the necessary disclaimer: I am not a veteran; I am a Vietnam era Boomer who lucked out with a draft lottery number of 360.  

I hope this does not disqualify me from the conversation. There was a  time when NOT being a veteran was a disqualifying factor in politics and in conversation: having a lucky draft number was barely rated above getting out because of a bone spur.  (The Swift Boat veterans managed to turn that on its head, setting the stage for Trump to derogate the quality of McCain's service by the fact of his capture.)

As with all things, there are pluses and minuses to military service. Honor, discipline, respect, valor, sacrifice; these are all noble traits.

On the other hand, to avoid being drafted for two years as an Army grunt, [someone I know] enlisted for four years to be a Marine aviator. He flew A-4's off of aircraft carriers and dropped napalm on Vietnam.  He has never, in any conversations I've had with him on the subject, expressed any compassionate concern for what he did; quite the  contrary...  Consequently I believe he lacks the qualifications necessary to be sitting in legislative judgment over the welfare of the disadvantaged or others he considers to be weak and unworthy.

There is a similar kind of glory attributed to participation in sports, which celebrates teamwork, and personal dedication toward excellence, to achieve a common goal; all noble things. But so often the common goal is simply moving a ball through some (objectively) meaningless place, whether it's a goal line or a hoop.  Which obscures the question: Is dedication to "winning" a worthwhile value?...

Theater, ballet, opera, orchestras, all require discipline, incredible teamwork, hours of practice, sacrifice, and individual attention to excellence. They have the added advantage of welcoming all-  the nerds, the cheerleaders, the brawny and the frail- into a collaborative enterprise the purpose of which is the elevation of the human spirit. However, we don't seem to weight this qualification very much in our political conversations.


The one overarching value of military service which makes me want to support this PAC is the ability to subordinate self to a larger value or purpose...  Whether it is law, norms, ethics or standards, the strength of America's democracy is our collective and individual willingness to seek individual fortune, but never at the expense of external standards...

One of the most important things we are losing in this time of Trump is the idea that a person of any ethnicity or religion or orientation can subordinate their individual predilections and greed, to external guiding standards, principles, norms, ethics and rules articulating American Constitutional values. (Trump's amorality is proof that he utterly lacks this capacity.)

Military service is certainly proof that the candidate can do this.  The remaining question for me is what other desirable human qualities remain after their military service.  I would hope that this PAC spotlights values beyond the fact of service itself.